What does Magna Carta have to do with the English Reformation? Answer: lots. Magna Carta’s first clause claiming that ‘the English Church is to be free and have its rights in whole and its liberties unimpaired’ became a fundamental clause for those who looked for historical precedents in their opposition to the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s religious settlement. ‘The liberties of the Church …guaranteed by Magna Charta’ were referenced by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1532 in a speech to be delivered to the House of Lords in 1532, that also noted — in a veiled threat to Henry — that those ‘kings who violated them … came to an ill end.’ Warham, however, died before he was able to deliver this speech to Parliament. Had he survived to deliver it, it is likely that he would have come to an ‘ill end’ well before Henry VIII! Later, members of the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 similarly looked to Magna Carta to justify their opposition to Henry’s reforms, demanding in their rough minutes from the conference at Pontefract, ‘That the Church of England may enjoy the liberties granted them by Magna Carta’. It is interesting to note that such invocations of Magna Carta appeared around the same time as the first publication of the Latin and English versions of Magna Carta in 1508 and 1534 respectively. Indeed, given these ever increasing appeals to Magna Carta by opponents of the Reformation, it is little wonder that Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII’s chief minister — made it a priority to ‘Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’.
Of all those who invoked Magna Carta against Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of all was its use by Sir Thomas More at his trial for high treason in 1535. Unable to accept Henry’s religious settlement and unwilling to swear to the Act of Succession, More was imprisoned on 12 April 1534 and tried the following year in July 1535. Though the outcome was a forgone conclusion, More delivered a forceful statement outlining his spiritual position, and invoking the first clause of Magna Carta. Quoting it in Latin, Thomas More told the court that Henry VIII’s reforms were ‘co[n]trary both to the ancient Lawes, & Statutes of our owne Realme not the[n] repealled, as they might well see in Magna Carta; Quod Ecclesia libera sit, & habeat omnia iura integra, & libertates suas illæsas’. Although based as it was on Magna Carta, this defence did not save him and More was beheaded on 6 July 1535.
That we know so much about More’s trial, and his use of Magna Carta in it, is due to the publication in 1626 of a book entitled The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, or the Life of Syr Thomas More More Knight. Written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper, during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–58), this is reputedly the earliest personal biography in the English language. Marked for its candour, detail and strong loyalty to More, it has influenced all subsequent writing on the former Lord Chancellor. Although it was written by Roper in the 1550s, the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) precluded the publication of this religiously sensitive biography. It was only published in 1626 by exiled English Jesuits at Saint-Omer who sought to mislead government agents by giving it the imprint ‘Paris’.
The collection known as the Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years -- the family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich. The Pastons rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just a few generations: the first member of the family about whom anything is known was Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, who gave an excellent education to his son William (d. 1444), enabling him to study law. William’s sons and grandsons, two of whom were knighted, continued his relentless quest for wealth, status and land, and their story was acted out against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses.
A 19th-century view of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk. This 15th-century 'castle' was built for a prominent aristocratic family, the Fastolfs. It passed to the Paston family who occupied it for the next century (British Library KTop XXXI.47)
For the first time, part of the British Library’s large collection of Paston family correspondence and documents has been digitised and is available to view in full. Five volumes containing some of the most studied items have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts website: four volumes from 1440-1489 (Add MS 43488, Add MS 43489, Add MS 43490, Add MS 43491) and a volume that contains further material from the second half of the 15th century, together with later correspondence from of the later 16th century (Add MS 33597). One of the most famous items in the Paston collection is the oldest Valentine letter (London, British Library, Additional MS 43490, f. 24), featured on this blog in 2011 when it was displayed in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition.
One of the earliest of the surviving letters, dated 20 April, ?1440, is from Agnes Paston to her husband, William, the patriarch of the family, in which she tells him that their son, John, seems to like the ‘gentilwomman’ that his father has chosen to be his bride, and asks him to buy her a wedding gown in ‘a godely blew or ellys a bryghte sanggueyn [red]’. Her mother has promised to supply the fur to go with it. She ends the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast … for defaute of a good secretarye’, so it would appear that this letter was written by Agnes herself. Unfortunately we do not know if the bride, Margaret Mautby, liked her gown, but she did marry John later in 1440!
Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)
The titles in modern handwriting show that this is the first letter in volume I of five volumes of Original letters, written during the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III…, edited and bound by their owner, John Fenn, the Norfolk antiquary in 1787-89 . The first two volumes were presented by him to King George III (1760-1820) at St James’s Palace in 1787, but then disappeared from view until they were found in the library of Colonel George Tomline at Orwell Park, Suffolk, around 1890. Tomline was a descendant of the private secretary to William Pitt the Younger, so they may have been in Pitt’s library in the late 18th century, but there is no record of how he obtained them from the Royal library. They were bought by the British Museum in 1933 after the Pretyman-Tomline family put them up for sale at Sotheby’s.
Each letter has the address and remains of a wax seal on the rear.
Verso of the above letter: ‘To my worshepefulle housbond W. Paston be this letter takyn’, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4v)
Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442. The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.
Among the letters and documents is an inventory of ‘Englysshe bokis’ owned by John Paston II (b. 1442, d.1479); unfortunately, the paper has decayed on the right-hand side so the titles are incomplete. Paston’s library included copies of romances that were popular at the time, for example ‘a boke of Troylus’, ‘þe Dethe off Arthur’ and a printed book listed as ‘a boke in preente off þe Pleye of þe… ‘, which has been identified as a copy of Caxton’s printed edition of ‘The Game and Playe of the Chess’, published in 1475. Unsurprisingly there are several books of heraldry, religious and classical texts.
Inventory of books belonging to John Paston II, Norfolk, between 1475 and 1479 (BL Additional MS 43491, f. 26r)
Sometimes the events described in the letters are remarkably familiar. While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, probably in his late teens, John Paston I loses his wallet somewhere between Cambridge and Newmarket! Here is an edition of the letter written by a certain John Gyne, known to the family, who found it on the ‘high weye’. The letter is from a collection that is soon to be digitised, and is transcribed in James Gairdner’s 1904 edition of the letters.
JOHN GYNE TO JOHN PASTON
To the worthy and worshipful sir and my good maister, John Paston of Trynyte hall in Cambrigge
Right worthy and worshipfull sir, and my good maister, I comaund me to yow. Like it yow to witte that on the Soneday next after the Ascencion of oure Lord, in the high weye betwex Cambrigge and the Bekyntre toward Newmarket, I fonde a purs with money ther inne. Th’entent of this my symple lettre is this, that it please to your good Maistership by weye of charite, and of your gentilnesse, to witte if ony of youre knowleche or ony other, swich as yow semeth best in your discrecion, have lost swich a purs, and, the toknes ther of told, he shal have it ageyn, what that ever he be, by the grace of oure Lord, Who ever have yow in his blissed kepyng. Wretyn at Sneylewell the Moneday next after the seid Soneday. By youre pover servaunt, John Gyn.
As most of the letters are dated or datable, they are invaluable primary sources for historians and are, in addition, of outstanding interest to linguists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development. There are 2185 entries from the Paston letters in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Visser’s monumental work, An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Leiden: Brill, 1972), they are a major source of examples of Middle English usage. One example is found in a letter from John Paston III (John Paston I has two sons called John Paston, just to confuse historians!) to his mother, Margaret Paston, where he informs her that my lord of Oxynforth … sent to my lady of Norffolk by John Bernard only for my mater and for non othyr cawse, myn onwetyng … (‘Lord Oxford sent a message to Lady Norfolk just to raise my business with her and for no other reason, without me knowing’). This construction, myn onweting (literally ‘mine unknowing’), is unfamiliar to us now. In modern English we would use the preposition ‘without’ to introduce an adverbial phrase with a present participle but we would be more likely to replace it with a noun, e.g., ‘without my knowledge’. The vocabulary, too, is interesting. ‘Onweting’ is a form of the Old English verb, ‘witen’, an alternative to ‘cnawan’ (to know), which survives in noun form in Modern English, in the word, ‘wit’ or ‘witless’ but is no longer used as a verb.
This letter was written in the midst of the confusion surrounding the restoration of Henry VI, who was recrowned the day after it was written, on 13 October 1470. John Paston tells his mother ‘tydyngys’ of the imminent death of the Earl of Worcester, who was to be executed a week later.
Letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston, London, 12 October 1470 (BL Additional MS 43489, f. 40r)
These 5 volumes are just a part of the large collection of Paston letters in the British Library. Further volumes of the family’s letters and documents are scheduled for digitisation in the future, so watch this space!
King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?
Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).
On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.
Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.
Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.
Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.
This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839). He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.
Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17
The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.
Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.
During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:
Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 2r
This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’.
Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465, Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r
Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it!
Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554, Add MS 89067, f. 1r
This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history.
And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month:
Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory
The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...
The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures in the British Library’s collections, is now back on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This Latin Gospel-book is thought to be the work of one remarkably gifted scribe and artist, who created it around 700 on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Its importance lies not only in the beauty of its carpet-pages and its miniatures of the four Evangelists, but also in the tenth-century gloss of its text that is the earliest example of the Gospels in the English language.
Colophon added by Aldred, the translator of the Old English gloss, in the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 259r
According to the colophon added by this translator, Aldred (fl. c. 970), who was provost of the community at Chester-le-Street near Durham, the artist-scribe was a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription records that Eadfrith ‘wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and also for all the Saints whose relics are on the island’. It also describes the binding made by Billfrith the anchorite, which included a cover adorned with gold, silver and precious gems.
On display for the next three months are two pages from the canon tables that preface the Lindisfarne Gospels (ff. 12v-13r). These provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one Evangelist. A mistake has been made in Canon 2 (shown), where the name titles at the heads of the three columns have been confused with those of Canon 3 on the facing page. The headings which read ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ have been corrected by a near-contemporary hand to read ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’. Interlace birds fill the columns and the arch, while a ribbon knotwork design is used for the bases and capitals.
Detail of masons building the canon table in the Echternach Gospels, from the monastery of St Willibrord, Echternach (now Luxembourg), 11th century, Harley MS 2821, f. 9r
Visitors to the Gallery will be able to compare the canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels with those in the Echternach Gospels, made in the monastery of St Willibrord (in modern day Luxembourg) in the eleventh century. The two tables on display (ff. 8v-9r) show elaborate ornamental pillars upon which masons are still working with hammers and chisels.
Detail of a remarkably naturalistic bird and fish from the ‘Golden Canon Tables’, Eastern Mediterranean, 6th or 7th century, Additional MS 5111, f. 11r
In another case nearby there is also the much earlier ‘Golden Canon Tables’ from the Eastern Mediterranean. Written over gold leaf, these tables are set within elaborately adorned architectural frames, including some finely executed birds and fish. These pages were later trimmed to fit a smaller twelfth-century manuscript of the Gospels, causing the loss of some of these details.
We are proud to announce that the CatholiconAnglicum is now being exhibited in our Treasures Gallery. The British Library acquired the manuscript, the only complete copy of the text in existence, in February this year, for £92,500, following the temporary deferral of an export licence. It had lain hidden for over a century in the Monson family collection in Lincolnshire.
Opening of the section for words beginning with M, from the ‘Catholicon Anglicum’, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 102v
Since its arrival at the British Library, it has been catalogued in detail (along with other late medieval dictionaries in our collection), photographed in full and uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, and now forms the centrepiece of a display of manuscripts about the variety of languages that were spoken and written in medieval Britain. This is your chance to see this rare and precious manuscript face-to-face!
End of the section for words beginning with Ȝ, and the compiler’s epilogue, Add MS 89074, f. 185v
The Catholicon was the first such dictionary to have all of its entries arranged in alphabetical order. The positioning of vernacular words first, with Latin equivalents following, shows that it was intended to be used for Latin composition not translation. It would have been of particular utility in the grammar schools that were being founded in large numbers during the 15th century.
Alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words, with glosses in Latin and Old English, England (?Worcester), 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
An early predecessor of the Catholicon is the first exhibit in the display: an alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words that was made in the 10th or 11th centuries, perhaps in Worcester. It may have been made for someone familiar with only basic Latin vocabulary, or as an aid to developing a more advanced command of the language. The headwords are glossed with more simplistic Latin equivalents or, sometimes, Old English words.
Following the Norman Conquest, Old English was supplanted by French as the language of the ruling elites. The next item on display in the Treasures Gallery is a 14th-century copy of a treatise written by Walter of Bibbesworth a century earlier, the Tretize de Langage. It was designed to be used by a mother to teach her two young children, and uses descriptions of everyday life and work, rhymes and riddles – even animal sounds – both to entertain and educate.
Descriptions of diseases and their symptoms, treatments and cures, from the ‘Lilium medicinae’, Ireland (County Clare), 1482, Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
The other two exhibits showcase languages that were spoken elsewhere in the British Isles. The Lilium medicinae, a guide to the treatment of illnesses, was written in 1303 by Bernard de Gordon, a famous physician at the University of Montpellier in France. Bernard was one of the medical authorities named by the Doctor of Physick in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This Irish translation of the Lilium was written by the scribe Domhnall Albanach Ó Troighthigh of County Clare in 1482. The Latin headings name various illnesses; the subheadings ‘Signa’, ‘Curacio’ and ‘Clarificacio’ describe their symptoms, treatment and cure.
Tinted woodcut of the Flagellation of Christ at the beginning of a poem by Walter Kennedy, from a collection of Scottish poetry, ?Scotland, 1st half of the 16th century, Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
A collection of Scottish poetry illustrates the cross-over between manuscript and print in the early 16th century. It contains seventeen 15th-century printed woodcuts, which have been pasted into reserved spaces in the book, often at the beginning of the texts. The source of the woodcuts is not known. They may have been recycled from a previous book, or gathered from a selection of devotional handbills or flyleaves. A poem about the Passion of Christ by Walter Kennedy begins, appropriately, with a scene of the Flagellation of Christ, an elaborate rubric in red ink and the opening words in an imposing display script.
A page from ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’, Wales (?Neath), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
There were, of course, other languages spoken in medieval Britain besides these. The British Library holds manuscripts of medieval Welsh, such as this legal text known as ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’. It contains the Gwentian code of Welsh law – a witness to a legal system distinct from that of England – and was written in south-west Wales, perhaps in Neath, early in the 14th century. The scribe who made this book was also responsible for another in the British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIV, which also contains Welsh laws and a copy of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris.
Bas-de-page scene of Christ carrying the Cross, from a manuscript of a Passion poem in Cornish, England (Cornwall), 15th century, Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
Harley MS 1782 further illustrates the flowering of regional forms of Christianity during the medieval period that we saw in the Scottish poetry book. This manuscript is a 15th-century copy of a poem about Christ’s passion written in Cornish. The text is illustrated with a series of scenes from the Passion – here, Christ carrying the Cross – akin to those that marked the Stations of the Cross in medieval churches.
Back in March this year, we announced that we had saved an important fifteenth-century manuscript from export: the only complete copy of the Catholicon Anglicum, one of the earliest Middle English-Latin dictionaries. Inspired by this fascinating linguistic and lexicographical source, in the intervening months we have been cataloguing other late medieval dictionaries in our collection.
Entries beginning with the letter ‘G’, from the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England (Norfolk), 15th century, Add MS 22556, f. 47r
The Promptorium parvulorum (‘The Students’ Storehouse’), like the Catholicon, had its Middle English entries arranged alphabetically, but in two sections: 'nomina' (nouns, but also adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections) coming first, followed by 'verba' (verbs). The British Library has four copies of this text in the collection: Add MS 22556, Harley MS 221, Harley MS 2274 (a fragment) and Add MS 37789.
The prologue (‘preambulum’) to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England (Norfolk), late 15th century, Add MS 37789, f. 1r
The prologue to the Promptorium tells us that its compiler lived as a Dominican friar in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1440. Two of our copies – Add MS 22556 and Add MS 37789 – can be localised to Norfolk on the basis of linguistic evidence. The compiler described himself as a recluse, and perhaps lived in an anchorage attached to the order’s house. Although his name is unknown, the Promptorium is commonly assigned to ‘Geoffrey the Grammarian’ on the basis of an annotation in a printed edition of 1499.
The explicit to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’ and incipit to the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, with scribal colophon of John Broke, Add MS 37789, f. 84r
In the sixteenth century, John Bale attributed the authorship of another late medieval dictionary to Geoffrey: the Medulla grammaticae. The two texts had a close relationship in both manuscript and print. In Add MS 37789, they are bound together within the same manuscript. The title ‘Medulla grammaticae’ is sometimes attached as an alternative in early printed editions of the Promptorium parvulorum. However, there is ultimately no evidence to support Bale’s attribution, which has proven more confusing than helpful to scholars.
The end of the list of entries beginning with ‘H’ and beginning of the list of entries beginning with ‘I’, with a pen-flourished initial, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 2257, f. 65r
Front endleaf (the former pastedown) bearing ownership inscriptions (Edward Lyster, Thomas Gayner), with pink-stained leather covering of the medieval binding visible at the edges, from the Medulla grammaticae, England (?Nottingham), Add MS 62080, f. 1v
The manuscripts of these dictionaries are functional, unelaborate objects – written for the most part in cursive scripts, usually on paper, with decoration rarely extending beyond plain coloured initials – but they are intriguing nonetheless. Add MS 62080 (a Medulla), which retains its medieval binding, appears to have passed through several hands in the Nottingham area.
Detail of the opening of the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, with a grotesque figure chewing on the cadels of the intertwined letters ‘H’ and ‘A’, Add MS 62080, f. 2r
This copy of the Medulla also has some amusing grotesques in its initials.
Prognostication calendar relating to ‘metalles, quoynes and apparel and other necessaries’, from a composite miscellany containing a fragment of the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England, 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 2274, f. 61v
The fragment of the Promptorium at the end of Harley MS 2274 is accompanied by an array of liturgical, devotional, medical and prognostication texts: including a curious zodiac calendar that advised when would be a good or bad time to ‘begynne all fyry workis’ (i.e. involving furnaces), ‘to lende mony to have it a gayne’, ‘to bye woll or woolyn clothe’, or ‘to put on nwe apparel’.
Detail of a list of ‘holsome herbes for the potte in tempore pestilenciali’, ‘a soverayne medicynne for the swetyng sekenesse’ from Master Walter Hyllum, and another ‘for the frenche pockis’, from an endleaf to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England, 15th century, Harley MS 221, f. 206r
Harley MS 221 (a Promptorium) was one of the manuscripts acquired by Robert Harley from Sir Symonds d’Ewes on 4th October 1705, in the first of several ‘block purchases’ from other manuscript collectors. It is one of the few dictionary manuscripts on parchment, and is written in a fine Textura script. The last leaf contains a number of medical recipes for dealing with pestilence, sweating sickness and ‘the french pocks’ (i.e. syphilis).
Detail of a scribal colophon, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, late 15th century, Harley MS 1738, f. 81v
Some evidence of the production and early provenance of Harley MS 1738 (a Medulla) survives. It may have been written by a scribe called William Harper, who wrote his name and the following verse upside-down at the bottom of the last page: ‘Si mean penna valet, melior mea littera fiet’ (‘If my pen is strong, my letter will be better’) (f. 81v).
Detail of an inscription relating to the ordering of paper, Harley MS 1738, f. 1r
It seems that at same point in the late fifteenth century someone wished to make a copy of this manuscript, and asked their brother Thomas to acquire the materials for them to do so: ‘Thomas brother I pray yow of halgentylnesse that yow wyl do the labor for to by me ii bokys in lyn papir for wrytyng [...] ad verssus the pralaying bokys and wel that ys callyd Medulla gramatice’ (f. 1r). It is of particular interest to our study of book production that it was possible in the fifteenth century to purchase not just plain paper, but quires that had been already ruled and lined for writing.
Detail of an inscription relating to the binding of the manuscript, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 33534, f. 1r
A similar instruction survives in another Medulla manuscript: Add MS 33534. This is another copy with a medieval binding, probably of the mid-fifteenth century, that once featured straps and labels on the exterior. An inscription on f. 1r reads: ‘Brothur William Barkere I pray youe lett thys booke be bound at the utmost by myddyll Lent and my brother shall pay for the byndyng’. The wording appears to indicate that William Barker was a monk, who perhaps was being given the book by a layman, whose brother in turn would foot the bill for its binding.
Detail of the head of a woman within a pen-flourished initial ‘C’, Add MS 62080, f. 31v
These dictionaries are an important reminder that Latin learning was not confined the cloister, cathedral or church. Laymen too required a functional command of the language in order to conduct business, to read and understand legal documents such as charters and wills. There is growing evidence as well – that the Catholicon Anglicum, Promptorium parvulorum and Medulla grammaticae together reinforce – that to understand lay reading habits we must go beyond vernacular texts. The laity did not content themselves with reading in the vernacular, but sought out and consumed popular and broadly circulating historical, literary, and religious texts in Latin for their own entertainment and edification.
Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects. Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books. But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts. Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion.
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v
Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures. As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works. For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r
We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts. The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r
The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary. Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’). It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group.
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r
A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East. In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold. Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r
The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period. Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals. They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king. Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders. Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v
That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons. A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r
It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later. The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r
Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r
Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era. The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages. Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text. An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval. Happy bug hunting!
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional MS 35254, f. N
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r