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49 posts categorized "English"

23 April 2014

The Anatomy of a Dragon

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Happy St George’s Day, everyone!   For some images of this patron saint of England, Portugal, Russia, and many other nations, please see our post from last year.  Today, though, we thought we would turn our attention to St George’s famous opponent, the dragon.

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Detail of a miniature of St George and the dragon, from the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, England (London) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1401, Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 5v

Dragons are near-ubiquitious in medieval manuscripts.  They take pride of place in bestiaries and herbals, books of history and legend, and Apocalypse texts, to name a few.  They serve as symbols, heraldic devices, and even as ‘just’ decoration, and their physical characteristics can vary widely. Cinematic and literary depictions of dragons today are fairly consistent; they are almost always shown as reptilian, winged, fire-breathing creatures (in a word, Smaug).  But this was by no means constant in the medieval period.

Let’s have a look at a very common medieval trope – of the dragon as the nemesis of a saint or angel.  Below we can see dragons facing off against St George (again), St Margaret, and the Archangel Michael.  All these examples are drawn from late 15th century manuscripts, but their dragons are very different, and range from a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.

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Miniature of St George and a lizard-like dragon, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands, c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 139v

Harley MS 2985 f. 37v C12569-03_detail
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the side of a lion-like dragon, from a Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r c5473-03a
Detail of a miniature of the Archangel Michael fighting a demon-like dragon, from Francisco de Ximenez’s Livre des anges, France (Tours), c. 1480, Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r

Even within a single manuscript it is possible to find a multiplicity of dragon sub-species.  One notable example is a French copy of the Life of Alexander the Great, in which this famous king is squaring off against three different kinds of dragon (our favourite, of course is the last).

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged dragons with emeralds in their foreheads, from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France (Paris), c. 1420 – c. 1425, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged horned dragons, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

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Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

The idea of the dragon as a fearsome foe for all godly and righteous beings stretches back to the late-antique source material that later developed into the 12th and 13th century text of the bestiary.  The book of beasts tells us that the dragon is a variety of serpent, is ‘larger than all other animals in the world’, lives in caves, and possesses great strength in its tail.  Nothing, ‘not even the elephant’, is safe from the dragon, which lies in wait and then suffocates the captured elephant within its coils.  The ominously-curled tail of the dragon is often shown to great advantage in the miniatures illustrating this passage (see particularly the first image below).

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 62r F60101-65a
Detail of a miniature of a dragon attacking and suffocating an elephant, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 118v G70035-41a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mother elephant giving birth in water to avoid the dragon circling overhead, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 188v

The bestiary text also makes explicit the connection between the dragon and the devil, aligning the fantastical creature with evil, deception, ‘vainglory and human pleasures’.  We see this connection repeated again and again in medieval manuscripts, particularly those concerned with describing and explaining evil. 

Add MS 38842 f. 5r c7835-03_detail
Detail of a miniature of men worshipping a dragon and the beast of the Apocalypse, from an Apocalypse with commentary in French prose, England (London?), c. 1325 – 1330, Additional MS 38842, f. 5r

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Detail of a miniature of the Woman and the seven-headed, ten-horned dragon-beast of the Apocalypse, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 153r

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Detail of a miniature of a human-headed satanic dragon, representing the papacy of Urban VI whose election was contested and resulted in the appointment of the anti-pope Clement VII, from Joachim de Fiore’s Vaticinia de Pontificibus, Italy (Florence), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1340, f. 8r

It would be too simplistic, though, to claim that dragons were universally objects of horror and loathing.  They were not even always enemies.  Dragons make appearances in discussions of astronomy and natural history, as elements of decoration, and even within the Tudor coat of arms.

Arundel MS 66 f. 33v G70017-79a
Detail of a miniature of the constellation ‘Draco’, from an astrological compilation with political prophecies, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 33v

Add MS 16577 f. 44v d40053-81a
Detail of a dragon with its tail circling a caption, from a Hebrew festival prayer book, Italian rite, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 16577, f. 44v

Add MS 39636 f. 28 c13835-71
Detail of a historiated initial ‘S’ of the Pentecost, with the body of the initial formed by two intertwining dragons, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century,  Add MS 39636, f. 28r

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Detail of an allegorical miniature about the Tudor rose with a red dragon, lion, and white greyhound, from Magister Sampson’s Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp), 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2r

We’ll be tweeting more fabulous British Library dragons over the next day or so; as always, please let us know your favourites.  And have a wonderful St George’s Day!

- Sarah J Biggs

11 April 2014

On a Roll

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Harley Roll Y 6 – the Guthlac Roll – has been fully digitised, and a new catalogue description and high-resolution images are now available on Digitised Manuscripts.  This newest upload takes place, appropriately, on St Guthlac’s own feast day.  It also coincides with the conclusion of a two-day conference at the University of London, which has marked the beginning of the 1300th year since Guthlac’s death with a series of papers on the saint’s life, his cult, and the surviving sources.  The Guthlac Roll is also on display in the British Library’s newly refurbished Treasures Gallery.

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Drawing of Guthlac being carried to the gates of Hell by demons and being given a scourge by St Bartholomew with which to repel them,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 8.  For more Hell-mouths in BL manuscripts, see ‘Prepare to Meet Your Doom’.

The Guthlac Roll was made around the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries.  It is regrettably incomplete: a fifth piece of parchment, containing perhaps two or three roundels illustrating the earlier stages of his life, has been lost.  What survives is a series of seventeen compelling and skilful pen-drawings in roundels of Guthlac’s life and deeds – including an entertaining trio illustrating his torment by and ultimate vanquishing of demons, aided by St Bartholomew – plus a final roundel illustrating the benefactors of his shrine at Crowland, in present-day Lincolnshire.

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Drawing of Guthlac deciding to devote himself to a life of religion,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 1 (incomplete).

Born into the Mercian royal dynasty, Guthlac spent his early adult life as a warrior, leading apparently successful raids and battles against hostile neighbouring tribes.  The roll in its present state opens with half of a roundel that illustrates the sleepless night on which the young Guthlac, surrounded by his slumbering fellow-soldiers, resolved to devote himself to a life of religion.

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Drawing of Guthlac leaving military service,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 2.

The roundel scenes are given particular animation by the skill with which the anonymous artist captured facial expressions.  Note the bewilderment of Guthlac’s men as he bade them and the military life farewell.  Stumped by his decision, they turn to one another questioningly; one looks down at the ground, seemingly lost in a moment of doubt.  The soldier at the front appears to be appealing to Guthlac – but too late: his back turned, he is departing with a simple wave.

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Drawing of Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 4.

Having received the tonsure at Repton Abbey, Guthlac set sail for Crowland, at that time an island amidst the Fens.  The roundel shows that his life of contemplation had already begun: with an open book on his lap, his gaze tilted upwards, he is lost in thought, oblivious to the paddling of Tatwin and his helper (who appears to be using a quant pole).

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Drawing of Guthlac exorcising a demon from Ecgga,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 10.

In a later roundel, two men look on in wonderment, one open-mouthed, as Guthlac is exorcising a demon from Ecgga.  The scene reinforces Guthlac’s saintliness: that he possessed holy powers that were witnessed by his contemporaries.

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Drawing of Guthlac counselling
Æthelbald, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 12.

According to Felix of Crowland’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci, the main source for the roll, word of Guthlac’s deeds attracted wide attention.  While in exile, Æthelbald, King of the Mercians, sought Guthlac’s advice.  The artist depicted Æthelbald sitting with his eyes fixed upon Guthlac, listening intently to his teaching, his attentive pose echoed by the rapt gaze of his attendant.

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Drawing of Pega setting sail for Crowland with Beccelm,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 15.

After Guthlac’s death, his sister Pega came to Crowland for his burial.  The fifteenth roundel shows her, grief-stricken, being met by Guthlac’s disciple, Beccelm.  Her brow is wrinkled, her eyes downcast; she is holding one hand up to her face mournfully.  Her emotional state is echoed by her unsteady pose: with one foot on land and the other on the boat, she is balanced by Beccelm, who is lending her his hand.

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Drawing of Guthlac’s burial,
Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 16.

The next roundel illustrates Guthlac’s burial.  Observe the care with which one of the monks is holding Guthlac’s legs, how tenderly Pega is cradling the saint’s head in the crook of her arm, as they lower his shrouded body gently into the coffin.  The depiction of Guthlac in silhouette – rather than wrapped in dramatic loops and whorls of drapery as in the earlier death-bed scenes – was a deliberate artistic decision.  It encapsulates the sudden absence of the central figure in this cycle of roundels and the emptiness of his mortal remains following the departure of his soul.

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Drawing of Guthlac’s appearance in a vision to King
Æthelbald during the vigil at his tomb, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 17.

It also emphasises the miraculousness of Guthlac’s startling reappearance in the next roundel: standing before Æthelbald, who is now looking up in wonder at the newly designated saint.

- James Freeman

10 April 2014

My Kingdom for a Horse

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Recently we had an enquiry about an unusual image that appears in the Rochester Bestiary.  This famous English book of beasts, which dates to the mid-13th century, has featured quite prominently in our ongoing series about medieval animals; have a look at our posts about lions, beavers, dogs, wolves, elephants, and hedgehogs, for example. 

The particular miniature in question can be seen below.  ‘Why,’ asks our slightly tongue-in-cheek correspondent, ‘are those horses having a cuddle?’.

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Detail of a miniature of two horses and two men, from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

At first glance, it certainly does appear that this is what’s going on here.  We are sad to report, however, that the truth is not quite so full of squee – rather than cuddling, these horses are in fact fighting one another.   An inscription in French intended to guide the illuminator can be found beside the miniature, telling us that it is meant to represent two knights and two horses engaged in combat (see below for a detail of this inscription).

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f042v copy
Detail of an inscription beside the miniature of the two horses and two men, altered to increase legibility, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

This is a fascinating scene, and as far as we can tell, a unique one among bestiary images.  The Rochester Bestiary is notable in that the miniatures illustrating each animal appear at the end of the relevant section, rather than at the beginning (for an example of the latter, see the Royal Bestiary:  Royal MS 12 C XIX).  The Royal Bestiary gives us a much more typical example of the kind of horse to be found in the book of beasts:

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Detail of a miniature of a horse at the beginning of the text about that animal, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 34r

A horse (of course) was an animal that every medieval reader would have been familiar with, and so most bestiaries depict the animal just as they are, with little in the way of drama or exposition in the scene.  The Rochester miniature, of course, is different.  However, there are a few clues – albeit indirect ones – in the text preceding this fascinating scene.

Horses in the early medieval period were largely the possessions of the aristocracy and warrior classes, and the bestiary text reflects their crucial role in battle.  Horses, we are told, rejoice in winning and are disheartened by defeat, and some can become so carried away that they will bite their enemies whilst fighting.  But most importantly, a ‘noble’ horse is loyal to his noble master, will ‘suffer no one except their master to ride them’, and will weep upon the death of its owner.  Amongst many examples of loyal horses, the bestiary text provides us with the story of the horse belonging to the king of the Scythians.  This king was killed in single combat, and when his opponent tried to divest him of his armour, the king’s horse attacked, biting and kicking until he was killed himself.

This is not exactly what is going on in the Rochester scene, but it’s as close as we can come.  We can see here a depiction of a story that is not reflected in any of the canonical bestiary texts – nor any others that we have yet uncovered.  We see here two horses so faithful to their masters that when the warriors are fighting, the horses mirror their aggression and attack one another.  Whether this scene is reflective of a parallel narrative tradition lost to us today or simply an artist’s unique interpretation of the instructions left for him remains to be determined.

- Sarah J Biggs

05 April 2014

Royal Manuscripts Follow-on Project - Completed!

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The Royal Manuscripts project team are pleased to announce that with the publication of 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, edited by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick, published by British Library Publications, the AHRC-funded follow-on to the Royal Manuscripts research project has been successfully concluded. 

Editors
Kathleen Doyle, Scot McKendrick, and 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts

In February 2012, the AHRC made an additional grant to the Library under the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact scheme, to enhance the research undertaken for the original Royal: Illuminated Manuscripts of the Kings and Queens of England project, and its dissemination.  As a digital enhancement project, the principal goal was to augment the resources on Royal manuscripts available to researchers on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  Regular readers of the blog will know that we have published regular updates on the project of this digitisation (see the links at the end of this post).

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God the creator, from a Bible Historiale, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

The goal of the follow-on project was to provide freely-accessible full online digital coverage of 24,750 pages from approximately 40-50 manuscripts featured in the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illuminated exhibition held at the British Library 11 November 2011-13 March 2012.  This objective was met and exceeded with 71 manuscripts now available on the website.  Thanks to all of you who provided ideas for digitisation selection.

Durham workshop

The project had two other objectives.  The first was to convene two workshops to allow students and scholars to build on the existing research undertaken as part of the Royal project by analysing texts and images of these manuscripts in collaboration with other researchers.  One workshop was held at Durham University on 6 June 2012, hosted by Professor Richard Gameson, Department of History.  At the workshop eleven undergraduate students presented papers on manuscripts included in the Royal exhibition, and Roger Middleton, Lecturer Emeritus, Department of French Literature at the University of Nottingham, presented a live display of the new research capabilities of the Digitised Manuscripts website.  The second workshop was designed for post-graduate students, and was held in London on 9 November 2012.  This workshop explored the research possibilities of digitisation in a seminar examining three original manuscripts together with their magnified digital images.

The third output was the publication of the book, which is a collection of ten essays on the development of Royal libraries, enhancing and building on the research completed for the initial Royal project.  Two of the essays (by Richard Gameson and Catherine Reynolds) were drawn from the new research presented at the Frank Davis lecture series held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in autumn 2011.  Four (by Michael Wood, Nicholas Vincent, John Goldfinch, and Jane Roberts) grew out of lectures given as part of the British Library lecture series accompanying the exhibition.  One (by James Carley) is on a royal manuscript that was once a part of the Old Royal Library but was not included in the exhibition, and so his research is presented in the volume for the first time.  The remaining three contributions (by Joanna Fronska, Scot McKendrick, and Kathleen Doyle) build on research that was undertaken for the initial Royal Manuscripts project presented in the exhibition catalogue.  Thanks to the grant provided by the AHRC, the book is extensive illustrated with ninety-four colour illustrations.   

AHRC

Previous Royal Manuscripts blog posts:

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/new-additions-to-digitised-manuscripts.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/chronicles-lancelot-and-a-journey-to-jerusalem-royal-manuscripts-now-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/gospels-psalms-and-prayer-rolls-more-royal-devotional-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/books-of-beasts-adventure-and-two-from-new-minster-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/psalters-bibles-and-the-end-of-days-devotional-texts-from-the-royal-collection-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/books-of-history-war-and-mystery-more-royal-manuscripts-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/crowns-romances-and-chronicles-aplenty-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/05/the-chosen-royals.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/03/keep-your-royal-suggestions-coming.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/which-royal-manuscripts-should-we-digitise.html

- Kathleen Doyle

29 March 2014

The Enemy of All Marriage

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Last week, we announced that two important manuscripts had been saved for the nation by the British Library.  One of these – a printed book filled with the manuscript notes of the religious reformer John Ponet (b. c. 1514, d. 1556) – has been digitised in its entirety, and is now available for all to study and enjoy through Digitised Manuscripts (the book is Add MS 89067).  It joins another book annotated by Ponet in the British Library collections: a copy of the 1534 edition of the Historia Danorum Libri XVI (590.k.10).

John Ponet began his career at Queen’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated as Master of Arts in 1535.  Yet no quiet life of scholarship awaited Ponet.  A highly articulate advocate of reformed religion, and an inveterate controversialist to boot, Ponet placed himself at the centre of contemporary doctrinal debates, including the question of whether priests should be permitted to marry.  Like Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker, Ponet took a wife well before clerical celibacy was swept away.  He was later arraigned on charges of bigamy, his wife being already betrothed to a Nottingham butcher; he eventually divorced her and married another woman.

Add_ms_89067_f001r
Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554, Add MS 89067, f. 1r

This book, published in 1554, is entitled A Traictise declaryng and plainly prouyng that the pretensed marriage of Priestes and professed persones is no marriage, but altogether unlawful, and in all ages, and al countreies of Christendome bothe forbidden and also punyshed.  Written by Thomas Martin, a civil lawyer of conservative religious standing, this book represents an attempt by the regime of Mary Tudor to give intellectual justification to the undoing of doctrinal changes effected during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.  Five years earlier, in the year that clerical celibacy had been abolished by act of parliament, Ponet had published A Defence for Mariage of Priestes, by Scripture and aunciente wryters.  Already married himself for at least a year, Ponet set out why ‘marriage and priesthood may stand together’ and how ‘marriage is no hindrance to a godly life’, drawing heavily on St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to marry in order to avoid the sin of fornication.

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Opening of the first chapter, with Ponet’s annotations in English and Latin in the margins, Add MS 89067, f. 11r

It is Ponet’s extensive manuscript notes alongside the Traictise – in the margins and on blank leaves specially inserted into the book – that transform this book into a witness of the personal battles taking place within religious controversies of the mid-sixteenth century.  Ponet’s rise to the bishopric of Winchester in 1551 had been at the expense of its former bishop Stephen Gardiner.  It is probably no coincidence that the author of the Traictise was employed by Gardiner in his new role as Mary I’s Lord Chancellor.

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Detail of an interleaved page containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 2r

Declaring on the title-page ‘Martin made me an enemy of all marriage’, Ponet left few leaves unmarked, writing notes in English, Latin and Greek that comprise a blow-by-blow response to the Traictise.  Ponet was evidently keen to garner scurrilous gossip to pepper his response with some ad hominem remarks: ‘Martin played always the fool in Christmas in New College, Oxford’, he noted (see above). 

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Detail of an interleaved page containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 4r

He often directly addressed Martin in his annotations: ‘Your intent, as appearing by this title of your book, is to prove that the marriage of priests and professed persons is not marriage...you think you have made so profound a resolution in this matter by your canonical wisdom and sophistical cunning...ye may dedicate the first fruits of your fancy as...to a queen...not doubting belike that her grace’s ears will not be offended with your unchaste terms of filthy whoredom, your shameless shifts, [...] lechery et cetera, your ruffian-like talk and loud lies...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 4r

Warming to his theme, Ponet continued, ‘Though the queen be contented with whatsoever you say, yet will learned men overlook you and judge what you ought to say, it is not your net that can hide your nakedness when you dance now as it was when you used to play in New College in Oxford the lords minion fool in Christmas.  Belike there you learned your boldness and lost your wit and did then put off shame and put on impudency...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 5r

Referring to the sacking under Mary of clerics who had legally married under Edward, Ponet wrote, with some sarcasm, ‘Now Mr Doctor ye must make some foul shift for your clients which be put in the possession of such men’s benefices as be deprived without a cause if your sayings be true...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 5r

Ponet predicted that unrest would follow these changes, with attacks made both against priests’ replacements and those responsible, not least because of perceived foreign influence through Mary’s marriage to Philip II: ‘...if now you and your Spanions help not at a pinch, all such new beneficed shavelings [i.e. inexperienced young men] shall be thought to live in open extortion and wrongfully to withhold other men’s goods, for the which great damage is like to ensue not only to them but also to all such as have put out the one without a cause.’

Add_ms_89067_f046r
Page of text, underlined and containing Ponet’s annotations in English and Latin, Add MS 89067, f. 46r
 

Ponet evidently saw the hand of his old adversary Gardiner at work in Martin’s Traictise.  His notes in Add MS 89067 formed the basis of his response, published in 1556, An Apologie fully answeringe by Scriptures and aunceant Doctors, a blasphemose Book gathered by D. Steph. Gardiner...and other Papists...as by ther books appeareth and of late set furth under the name of T. Martin Doctor of the Civile lawes...against the godly mariadge of priests.  Yet this new acquisition contains many other annotations by Ponet that were never printed and remain to be studied in detail.  It thus offers fresh insights into a disputatious and very personal exchange during a febrile period in England’s religious history.

22 March 2014

Blogtastic!

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You may recall that we asked for your help earlier this year, when we asked for your votes in the inaugural National UK Blog Awards (Vote for Us Please). We're delighted to tell you that, thanks to your overwhelming support, we have made the list of finalists in the Arts and Culture category. We understand that more than 16,000 votes were cast in total (not all for us obviously), but we are hugely grateful for your support: every little vote really did count! You can read more about the National UK Blog Awards here.

Benedictional
The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, from our blogpost More Unique Than Most (4 February 2014)

The awards ceremony itself takes place on 25 April. We are dusting off our snappiest suits and poshest frocks, to make a good impression on the night itself. Most of our time we spend hovering over our computers, beavering away to make our collections available online or dreaming up ever more outlandish blogposts (and a thousand other things besides). It's great to know that somebody out there is impressed by what we have been doing.

Gawain
Imaging the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from our blogpost Gawain Revealed (23 February 2014)

Since the time we asked for your votes, here are some of the stories we have posted on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. We hope that there will be many more like these to come. Let us know your favourite by tweeting @BLMedieval.

A Medieval Comic Strip

A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love

Gawain Revealed

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

More Unique Than Most: The Benedictional of St Æthelwold

She Cares Not a Turd: Notes on a 16th Century Squabble

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

Mystere
The Mystère de la Vengeance, from our blogpost Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library (6 March 2014)

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs

 

18 March 2014

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two major manuscripts, following temporary export bars. One is the Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary, and the other is a printed treatise on clerical marriage, owned and annotated by John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester.

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The Catholicon Anglicum, a medieval dictionary newly-acquired by the British Library

Copied in 1483, and still in its original binding, the newly-acquired manuscript of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074) is the only complete witness of that text. It had last been seen in 1881, when the text was edited, and its whereabouts were unknown for more than a century. The British Library already holds the only other copy known to survive, Add MS 15562, which is slightly earlier in date but lacks many of its leaves.

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Detail of the Catholicon Anglicum

The newly-acquired dictionary comprises approximately 8,000 Middle English words, each written in red ink, followed by their Latin (and sometimes Greek) equivalents written in brown ink. The use of dialect words by the anonymous compiler indicates that the Catholicon Anglicum was of Yorkshire origin. Entries range from the mundane – for example, ‘a Milne stane’ (a millstone) – to the more conceptually complex – such as ‘a Mynde’. As one of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, the Catholicon Anglicum is of profound importance for the study of the development of both the English language and of English lexicography.

Also following a temporary export bar, the British Library has acquired John Ponet’s personal copy of a 1554 treatise against clerical marriage. Ponet (c. 1514-1556) was a Cambridge academic and a passionate exponent of religious reform, who became Bishop of Winchester under Edward VI in 1551. He had married in 1548, before clerical celibacy had been abolished, and published a treatise the following year, entitled A Defence for Marriage of Priests, by Scripture and Ancient Writers. Upon the accession of Mary I, Ponet went into exile in Strasbourg.

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John Ponet's copy of a treatise denouncing clerical marriage

In 1554, Thomas Martin, a civil lawyer and religious conservative who had recently returned to England, published a refutation of Ponet’s treatise, entitled A Treatise declaring and plainly proving that the pretensed marriage of priests…is no marriage, but altogether unlawful. This new acquisition (Add MS 89067) is Ponet’s own, interleaved and annotated copy of Martin's treatise. Declaring angrily on the frontispiece ‘Martin made me the enemy of all marriage’, Ponet began a point-by-point attack upon Martin’s work and defence of his own, filling the blank leaves and margins with manuscript notes in English, Latin and Greek, which later formed the basis for his own printed response in 1556, An Apology fully answering…a blasphemous book…against the godly marriage of priests.

Full digital coverage of the Catholicon Anglicum and Ponet's book will be made available in the coming months on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and we will also make both items accessible to researchers using our Manuscripts Reading Room. We believe that study of both manuscripts will contribute enormously to knowledge of their respective fields, and anticipate that many researchers will profit from having access to these new acquisitions.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of Ponet's book has been greeted by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford: ‘I am delighted and relieved that the British Library has stepped in as guardian angel for a very precious book. This printed work has an especial significance for our national history, as it is annotated in manuscript by one of its author's principal enemies. Two major players in England's Reformation have an angry conversation before our eyes, the first married Bishop of Winchester combatting the arguments of his unmarried predecessor-Bishop's Chancellor against clerical marriage. Now this unique document is not just safe in public custody, but will be easily available for all to read.'

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An opening from Ponet's book, showing how he had it interleaved to add his own comments

Ponet's book was offered for auction in the Mendham sale at Sotheby's, London, on 5 June 2013, at which the British Library had bought four lots. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, but once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands.

Today's announcement comes hot on the heels of our exciting recent acquisition of the Mystère de la Vengeance, a beautiful 15th-century illuminated drama. You can already see images of the Mystère on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2).

15 March 2014

The Life of a Mystic

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Perhaps the first autobiography ever written in English, this book contains the incredible life story of the female mystic, Margery Kempe, who lived in what is now Kings Lynn, Norfolk from c. 1373 to c. 1440.  The work survives in only one known manuscript, British Library Add MS 61823, written at about the time of her death.  The manuscript’s survival story is nearly as eccentric and action-packed as that of its heroine (on which, see below).  It was owned by the Butler Bowden family and the story goes that when Colonel W. Butler Bowden was looking for a ping-pong bat in a cupboard at his family home near Chesterfield in the early 1930s he came across a pile of old books.  Frustrated at the disorder, he threatened to put the whole lot on the bonfire the next day so that bats and balls would be easier to find in future.  Luckily a friend advised him to have the books checked by an expert and shortly afterwards Hope Emily Allen identified one as the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’, which was previously known only from excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521 (where the author is described as ‘a devoute ancres’).  A true miracle!

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Opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 1r

Margery Kempe was the daughter of a merchant named John Brunham and at about the age of twenty she married John Kempe, a brewer and chamberlain of Lynn.  After the birth of her first child, she suffered depression, from which she was cured by a vision of Christ.  She had another thirteen children before she finally persuaded her husband to agree that they should live chastely!  She then donned white robes and sought permission from her bishop, who sent her to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, but there is no record that she took formal vows.  In 1413 she left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, living off charity along the way.  In Jerusalem, she visited Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, where she was overtaken by a fit of uncontrollable crying , which, together with her roaring in church, brought her fame as a mystic, but also provoked hostility, especially in England on her return.  She was constantly in conflict with the establishment in her town, rejecting the conventional values and materialism of her fellow citizens and breaking her links with her family and society.

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Text page from the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 6r

As recorded in the book, she set off again on pilgrimage in 1417 to Santiago de Compostela.  On her return from Spain she was accused of heresy several times and imprisoned in Leicester on a charge of Lollardy, and was reportedly mistreated while in prison.  Having argued her innocence before the church authorities on several occasions, she finally was given a letter by the Archbishop of Canterbury, allowing her access to confession and communion.  She returned to Lynn, beset by physical hardships, and lived an intense spiritual life, filled with visions, conversations with Christ and noisy lamentation.  Her husband, perhaps wisely, stayed away, but when he suffered an injury, she nursed him until his death, after which she travelled to Germany with her daughter at the age of almost 60 to see the Holy Blood in Brandenburg and the relics in Aachen.  The last record we have of her is in 1438.  Her book was completed by this time and a ‘Margeria Kempe’, who may be its author, was admitted to the prestigious Trinity Guild of Lynn.  She is thought to have died shortly after this, but there is no record of her death.  The scribe who wrote down this version of Margery’s story identifies himself as Salthows, priest at Lynn in Norfolk and scholars believe this is not the original copy of the work, but was made a little later than the original, perhaps under the author’s supervision. 

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Detail of the Mount Grace Priory ownership inscription from The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. iv verso

The verso of the first page of the manuscript contains the rubric, ‘Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace’, and has been annotated by four scribes, probably monks associated with the   Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire.  Some of the notes in the margins give us an idea how the book was read by these monks and suggest why it was preserved by them.  One such note provides marginal headings, pointing to key passages in the text, such as ‘nota de clamore’ when Margery utters her first cry, and here a note with the word ‘mirabile’ (miracle):

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Marginal note in Latin marking a miraculous event in The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. 40v.

In this passage, Margery is described as being at the Church of St John Lateran in Rome, where she meets a very learned priest, a ‘Dewcheman’ (German) who ‘undirstod non Englycsh ne wist not what sche seyd’, and she could  speak ‘non other language than Englysch’ so they had to speak to each other through an interpreter.  Then, on Margery’s advice, the priest prayed for 13 days, at the end of this ‘he undirstod what sche seyd in Englysch to hym and sche undirstod what that he
seyd. And yet he undirstod not Englisch that other men spokyn’ – a miracle indeed!  But for Margery this was not an occasion to celebrate:  ‘sche sobbyd boistowsly and cryed ful lowde and horybly’. One wonders what the learned priest’s reaction could have been.

Religious eccentric, feminist icon, literary genius, early social reformer – Margery Kempe has been described as all these things by critics approaching her text in different ways.  However we view her, there is no doubt that the work provides an invaluable insight into 15th century urban life and into the religious practices of the period. 

-  Chantry Westwell