Medieval manuscripts blog

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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. 

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).

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.   


Previous Royal Manuscripts blog posts:

- Kathleen Doyle

20 February 2014

The Lovers Who Changed History

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Henry and Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History is to be broadcast tonight on Channel 5 (Thursday, 20 February, 8pm). Presented by historian Suzannah Lipscomb, the first episode features Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours (British Library King's MS 9), in which she and King Henry VIII wrote flirtatious messages to each other.

Miniature of Christ as the Man of Sorrows kneeling before his tomb, with Henry VIII's message addressed to Anne Boleyn in the lower margin (London, British Library, MS King's 9, f. 231v).

The story of Henry and Anne's love affair is well-known; but less so is the precious evidence found in this Book of Hours, held by the British Library, which contains secret messages exchanged by the lovers. Henry portrayed himself as a lovesick king by placing his message beneath an image of the man of sorrows, writing in French ‘If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R  forever.’ Anne replied in English, writing beneath a miniature of the Annunciation: 'Be daly prove you shall me fynde, To be to you bothe lovynge and kynde.'

Miniature of the Annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel, with Anne Boleyn's note in the lower margin (London, British Library, MS King's 9, f. 66v).

We can only speculate how Henry and Anne came to exchange these private, scribbled messages. Perhaps Henry wrote his first, and passed the book to Anne Boleyn, who returned the favour. Hopefully we will find our more tonight: don't forget to watch the documentary!


Julian Harrison

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

21 January 2014

Vote For Us (Please)

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We are delighted to announce (drumroll, please) that the magnificent Medieval Manuscripts Blog -- that's us -- has been nominated for the National UK Blog Awards, in the Arts and Culture category.

Unicorn Grill detail

But now we need your help. In order to be shortlisted for these awards, members of the public -- that's you -- need to vote for us by midnight on 26 January. And here's how: please go the Blog Awards page, read our nomination and cast your vote in our favour, if you feel so inclined. It couldn't be simpler -- well, it probably could, but we didn't make up the rules ...

Knight v Snail

So, if medieval manuscripts float your boat -- and we're assuming that they do, otherwise you're unlikely to be reading this -- please, please, please, please vote for us! Your friendly, reputable, warm and cuddly Medieval Manuscripts blog.

If you're new to this blog, or you just want a refresher, here's a link to our most popular posts of all time, our Medieval Top Ten. There you can see blogposts about some of the highlights of the British Library's collections, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Beowulf, and those perennial favourites Knight v Snail and Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library.

Here are some of the kind things that people have been saying about us:

"Astounding! How do they get away with it?" (Daily Groat)

"We look forward to reading their last post" (Unicorn Lovers Weekly)

 "Magical. Enchanting. Engrossing. None of these words come to mind when describing the Medieval Manuscripts Blog." (Professor Brian Trump, British Medieval Cookbook Project)

 And this, for good measure, is our nomination:

"Our blog promotes our love of medieval art, history and culture. We are the British Library’s top-ranked blog, with more than 600,000 hits this year alone [2013]. We have loyal readers throughout the world, from Antarctica to Greenland, and Afghanistan to Myanmar. Our blog has been featured in the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Scientific American, among others. We are thrilled to bring the world of medieval manuscripts to new audiences."

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs


02 December 2013

Magna Carta Internship 2014

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British Library Volunteer Programme 2014

Magna Carta Project, Department of History and Classics 

The British Library is offering a six-month volunteership for an American doctoral student to join the History and Classics Department in 2014. This position has been generously funded by the American Trust for the British Library.


The student’s primary focus in 2014 will be contributing to the development of the Library’s major temporary exhibition on Magna Carta which will open in 2015 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the granting of the document in 1215. The exhibition will examine the medieval history of Magna Carta and its post-medieval impact and legacy, both in Britain and around the world.

We are particularly keen to receive applications from students able to contribute to the development of gallery interactives for the medieval sections of the exhibition. For that reason, it is essential that candidates have strong knowledge of medieval British history and excellent medieval Latin. Expertise in reading medieval documentary script is desirable.

The student will work closely with the Lead Curators of the exhibition, Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator for Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, and Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts. The intern will be involved in a wide variety of duties relating to the planning and preparation of the exhibition, and the wider programme associated with it. The project will provide the intern with invaluable research and practical experience of preparing for a major international manuscript exhibition. 

During the internship, the student will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. The position is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills using original historical manuscript sources, and expertise in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.


The programme is only open to US citizens who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of Magna Carta. Applicants must have a strong knowledge of medieval British history and excellent medieval Latin.


The term of the placement is for a period of six months. The placement is voluntary and therefore unpaid.  However, the successful applicant will be reimbursed in respect of actual expenses in the performance of his or her duties, such as visa costs, direct travel expenses to London and commuting expenses to the British Library, accommodation, and immediate living expenses such as food (but not clothing or alcohol), subject to a maximum of £10,000. The volunteer will be responsible for making his or her own travel and accommodation arrangements.

If the applicant does not hold the right to work in the United Kingdom, the Library will sponsor the volunteer for a visa using the UK Border Agency’s points-based system under Tier 5 Charity Workers. The successful candidate will be required to submit the relevant application form to the local processing centre. The processing fee will be reimbursed by the Library.  No placement may commence until the appropriate right to work documents have been obtained and verified.

How to apply

Please send an application letter detailing the months you would be able to be in London, a résumé, and two reference letters to Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to, or by post to 96 Euston Road, LondonNW1 2DB, by Saturday 1 February 2014.  A telephone interview may be held. All applicants will be notified of the results by the end of March 2014.

14 November 2013

A New Life for Royal Manuscripts

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It is always a great pleasure for us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section to see the many and varied new ways that people make use of our 'old' material; see, for example, the dozens of retweets on our @BLMedieval Twitter account, or our previous post about a film inspired by the Luttrell Psalter. So, when Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey asked to borrow several banners that had been on display during Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination for an exhibition he was curating, we were thrilled to participate.

Leckey's exhibition The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things was sponsored by the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, and travelled to Liverpool, Nottingham, and Bexhill on Sea earlier this year. The exhibition explored 'how our relationships with artworks and common objects alike are being transformed through new information technologies' and included works of art from every genre and period. If you weren't able to catch the exhibition, here are a few images of our Royal banners in action!


Installation view: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate


Installation View: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at De La Warr Pavilion 13 July – 20 October 2013. Photo: Nigel Green


Installation View:  detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate

04 November 2013

Blackburn's 'Worthy Citizen': A Colloquium on the R. E. Hart Collection

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Personification of Death at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from an Italian Book of Hours, c. 1470-1480, Hart 20966, f. 106v

It is our very great pleasure to invite you - by proxy - to an upcoming colloquium about one of England's 'hidden' rare book and manuscript collections.  Although it is not entirely unknown to scholars, the R. E. Hart collection of manuscripts, incunables, and early printed books (now held by the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery) is rarely utilised by academics; the present curator of the Museum, Vinai Solanki, has welcomed only three such visitors in the past five years.  This is a particular shame as the collection, though small, is spectacular, and contains such gems as the Peckover Psalter (France, c. 1220-40) and the Blackburn Psalter (England, William of Devon workshop, c. 1250-60), as well as a number of significant Books of Hours and early printed books. 

Detail of an historiated initial 'B'(eatus vir) with two scenes of King David, at the beginning of the Psalms, from the Peckover Psalter, France, c. 1220-40, Hart 21117, f. 14v

An exhibition of ten items from the Hart collection will be available from 8 November to 28 November in Goldsmith's Library Reading Room, Senate House, London (see below), and this exhibition will culminate in a one-day colloquium on 23 November at the Institute of English Studies, Senate House; please see the relevant IES page here.  Registration includes refreshments, lunch, and a wine reception at the end of the day, and the first 25 student places are offered free of charge. 

More details about the project can be found at:  We hope to see you there!

Blackburn poster 10.10.13 final

12 September 2013

The Worms Bible on Display in Mannheim

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The British Library is delighted to have loaned three manuscripts to an major exhibition in Mannheim at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen.  This exhibition, The Wittelsbachs on the Rhine: The Electoral Palatinate and Europe, will run from 8 September 2013 until 2 March 2014The exhibition corresponds to an important period of history, namely the 800th anniversary of the granting of the County Palatine of the Rhine to the Wittelsbach family, and celebrates the history, arts and culture of the Wittelsbach Counts Palatine and Electors.


In 1214, Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen invested the Wittelsbach Duke Ludwig I with the  County Palatine, formerly under the control of the Welf family.  This established an unbroken Wittelsbach line of Counts Palatine which continued through to Carl Theodor, Count Palatine and Duke of Bavaria (d. 1799).  The Wittelsbachs always referred to themselves as Counts Palatine of the Rhine and Dukes of Bavaria; emphasis was given to the title of Count Palatine because it included the right to serve as one of the seven electors of the king.  This is an exceptional story of the transformation of a rather obscure family into a dynasty that ruled vast territories in the Holy Roman Empire for 800 years.

Miniature of Jerome writing at a desk with a small monk below, and the illuminated initial 'F'(rater) with foliate interlace and bands, at the beginning of Jerome's letter to Ambrose, Germany (Frankenthal), c. 1148, Harley MS 2803, f. 1v

The first volume of the Worms Bible (Harley MS 2803; the manuscript is now in two volumes) appears in the first section of the exhibition, which highlights the importance of the Rhenish Palatine region.  The massive Worms Bible was probably written or illuminated c. 1148 at the Augustinian abbey of Mary Magdalene in Frankenthal, 10 kilometers south of Worms, now a short train ride from Mannheim.  If you are unable to make it to the exhibition, you can view this first volume in its entirely on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website (Harley MS 2803).  We hope to digitize the second volume and make it available on the web in the next several months.

Alongside the history of the Rhenish Palatine region and the Wittelsbach family and its origins, the concept of the 'Electoral Palatinate' will also take centre stage in the exhibition's first section.  The Palatinate was one of the richest and most important regions in the Holy Roman Empire, a domain of innovation and creativity.  Co-curator Viola Skiba comments that this remains true today, noting that ‘it is a common phenomenon that the people call themselves “Kurpfälzer”, meaning “Palatinates”, without knowing what this signifies'. 

Despite the importance of the so-called 'Pfalzgrafschaft' around 1200, there were only few places of renown in the Palatinate, but one of these was Frankenthal and its Augustinian monastery, which developed into a centre of economic and cultural potential with an influence that lasted until the dissolution of the monastery in 1562 and the consequent dispersal of its library.  In commenting on the relative paucity of surviving material from the region, Skiba describes the Worms  Bible as 'the highlight and the key exhibit of this first section dedicated to the region and its cultural and political importance.’

Two other British Library manuscripts feature in the exhibition, both Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.  They are placed in the second section of the exhibition, which addresses the importance of the river Rhine and highlights the different cultural and political aspects of the region.  Part of this is a focus on the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish communities in Rhenish cities, above all the so-called SchUM cities Speyer, Worms and Mainz (SchUM is an acronym derived from the initial letters of the Hebrew names of the cities: Schpira, Warmeisa, Magenza).

Numerous precious manuscripts - now found all over the world - trace their origins to the region along the Rhine. Many of these manuscripts are beautifully illuminated and testify to the high artistic quality of the work done by the scribes and illuminators employed.  

Add MS 22413 f. 3r 077786
Historiated initial-word panel of the Receiving the Law with Moses streching his hands for the tablets and Aaron (shown as a Christian bishop) and the Israelites (divided according to sex) waiting at the foot of the mountain, at the beginning of a liturgical poem for the first day of Shavuot, Germany, c. 1322, Additional MS 22413, f. 3r

The first manuscript, Additional MS 22413, is a festival prayer book for Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles).  This is one part of the 'Tripartite Mahzor'; the other two volumes are Budapest (Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Science, Kaufmann Collection MS A384), and Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Michael 619).  The prayer book was originally a two-volume codex; in the exhibition the first two parts are reunited and can be viewed side-by-side.  Skiba comments that ‘This alone will be one of the absolute highlights of the exhibition’. 

Add MS 15282 f. 179v a80062-19
Full-page panel inhabited by hybrids and dragons, and four knights holding banners with the symbols of the four tribes camped around the Tabernacle (Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, Dan), and with the initial-word panel Wa-yedabber (and [the Lord] spoke) in its centre, at the beginning of Numbers, Germany, first quarter of the 14th century, Additional MS 15282, f. 179v

The second British Library Hebrew manuscript to be featured is Additional MS 15282, the famous 'Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch').  This Ashkenazi manuscript, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, was produced in the first quarter of the 14th century by the scribe Hayyim, and contains a number of lavishly decorated word-panels.


Und jetzt in Deutsch!

2013/14 gedenken die Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim gemeinsam mit der Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz, den Staatlichen Schlössern und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, der Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und Gärten Hessen, dem Historischen Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, und dem Kurpfälzischen Museum Heidelberg einem bedeutenden historischen Jubiläum. Dann jährt sich die Übertragung der Pfalzgrafschaft bei Rhein an die Familie der Wittelsbacher zum 800. Mal. Mit einer unter dem Titel „Die Wittelsbacher am Rhein. Die Kurpfalz und Europa“ geplanten, großen Doppel-Ausstellung soll an die Geschichte, Kunst und Kultur der wittelsbachischen Pfalzgrafen und Kurfürsten gedacht werden.

1214 übertrug der staufische Kaiser Friedrich II. die vormals welfische Pfalzgrafschaft an Herzog Ludwig I (1174-1231).  Damit wurde eine ununterbrochene wittelsbachische Traditionslinie begründet, die bis hin zu Carl Theodor (1714-1799) reichte. Über alle Landesteilungen und dynastischen Zufälle hinweg bewahrten die Wittelsbacher die Verantwortung für die Einheit von Haus und Herrschaft. Stets nannten sie sich Pfalzgrafen bei Rhein und Herzöge von Bayern. Der Pfalzgrafentitel stand dabei häufig im Vordergrund, denn aus diesem konnten die Wittelsbacher das Vorrecht ableiten, im Kreis der Kurfürsten den König zu wählen und mit ihm gemeinsam die Reichspolitik zu gestalten.

Die British Library unterstützt den Ausstellungsteil, der sich mit dem Mittelalter befasst (um 1200 bis 1504) durch die Leihgabe von drei kostbaren und bedeutenden Handschriften.

Bei der ersten Leihgabe handelt es sich um den ersten Band der „Frankenthaler Bibel“, die auch als „Wormser Bibel“ geführt wird und die im 12. Jahrhundert in Frankenthal entstanden ist. Die großformatig und wunderbar illuminierte Bibel wird im ersten Ausstellungskapitel zu sehen sein, das sich der Bedeutung der rheinischen Pfalzgrafschaft widmet. In dieser Abteilung wird eine außergewöhnliche Erfolgsgeschichte vorgestellt: der Aufstieg einer bis dahin eher unbedeutenden Familie zu großer Macht.  Die Geschichte einer Dynastie, die schließlich für 800 Jahre große Gebiete im Heiligen Römischen Reich beherrschen sollten und zu den mächtigsten Fürsten Europas zählten.

Neben der Familie und ihrer Herkunft wird dabei auch das Gebiet der „Kurpfalz“ in den Mittelpunkt treten. Über die Jahrhunderte war die Pfalzgrafschaft eine der reichsten und bedeutendsten Regionen des Heiligen Römischen Reichs, ein Territorium, das von Innovationen und Kreativität geprägt war und noch immer geprägt ist.  Noch heute begreifen sich die Bewohner dieses historischen Gebiets, das als solches nicht länger existiert als „Kurpfälzer“, auch wenn sie gar nicht wissen, was dies bedeutet. Die Besucher sollen daher dieses besondere historische Territorium, seine Besonderheiten und seine Herrscher kennenlernen.

Trotz der Bedeutung der Pfalzgrafschaft gab es in der Zeit um 1200 nur wenige nennenswerte städtischen oder kulturellen Zentren in diesem Gebiet. Eines war allerdings Frankenthal mit seinem Augustiner-Chorherrenstift, das sich zu einem Zentrum von großem ökonomischen und kulturellen Potential entwickelte und das seinen Einfluss für 400 Jahre geltend machte.  Im Jahre 1562 wurde das Stift im Zuge der Reformation aufgelöst.  Alle Besitztümer und nicht zuletzt die Bibliothek wurden auf Befehl Friedrich III nach Heidelberg verbracht und der von Friedrich III der Universitätsbibliothek hinzugefügt.  Um einen der größten Schätze dieser Zeit, die sog. Wormser Bibel soll die Bedeutung der historischen Region der Rheinischen Pfalzgrafschaft erklärt werden. Tatsächlich war das Gebiet im Laufe der Jahrhunderte so umkämpft, dass unglücklicherweise nur wenig archäologisches Material oder anderes kulturelles Gut die Stürme der Zeit überdauert hat. Daher stellt die kostbare und wunderbar gearbeitete Bibel das Highlight und ein Schlüsselexponat für diese erste, der Region und ihrer Bedeutung gewidmete Sektion dar.

Das zweite Ausstellungskapitel widmet sich der Bedeutung des Rheins und versucht verschiedene kulturelle und politische Aspekte rund um den Strom aufzugreifen. Einer dieser Themenbereiche betrifft die jüdische Kultur im mittleren Rheingebiet und in der Kurpfalz.  Eine ganze Untersektion ist dem reichen kulturellen Erbe der jüdischen Gemeinden mit ihren Zentren in den rheinischen Städten, vor allem den sogenannten SchUM-Städten Speyer, Worms und Mainz gewidmet (SchUM ist ein Akronym, dass sich aus den Anfangsbuchstaben der hebräischen Namen der drei Städte zusammensetzt: Spira, Warmeisa, Magenza).

Da das Judentum essentiell eine auf Schriften basierende Religion ist, bei der die Arbeit mit Texten und Manuskripten zur Religionsausübung gehörte, kam es zu einer besonderen Entwicklung der Buchkultur. Zahlreiche kostbare Manuskripte, die nun über die ganze Welt verstreut sind entstanden entlang des Rheins.

Viele dieser Handschriften weisen wunderbare Illustrationen auf und belegen den hohen künstlerischen Standard der Arbeit der Schreiber und Illuminatoren. Mehrere dieser Manuskripte sind in der Ausstellung zu sehen, darunter zwei Bücher aus der British Library, ein Pentateuch und eine Machsor-Handschrift. Letztere ist Teil eines ursprünglich zweibändigen Werks, das heute in drei Teilen vorliegt und in verschiedenen Bibliotheken aufbewahrt wird. Für die Ausstellung in Mannheim wurden zwei dieser drei Teile wieder vereinigt: der erste Teil des Machsor aus der Bibliothek und Informationszentrum der Ungarischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und der zweite Teil aus der British Library. Das allein wird einen der Höheunkte der Ausstellung „Die Wittelsbacher am Rhein. Die Kurpfalz und Europa“ darstellen.

- Kathleen Doyle and Viola Skiba

06 September 2013

Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation

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It is a week since Famous Seamus sadly passed away. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate for Literature, came to the British Library as part of our Beowulf week in October 2009. In front of an enthralled audience, he read extracts from his award-winning translation of Beowulf. Heaney then listened in turn as Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby performed their respective versions of the poem, before all three discussed Beowulf under the expert chairmanship of Michael Wood.

Beouwlf panel b_w

The Beowulf event at the British Library in 2009, featuring (from left to right) Michael Wood, Michael Morpurgo, Benjamin Bagby and Seamus Heaney

As a curator at the British Library, it's always rewarding to find ways of making our medieval manuscripts come to life, and to demonstrate how they remain relevant to modern and future generations. Seamus Heaney's participation in our week of Beowulf events was a notable highlight -- how to take an epic written in a long-dead language, and to re-invent and re-interpret it for modern listeners.

Heaney's version of Beowulf had won the Whitbread Prize for Book of the Year in 1999. Around that time, the British Library acquired from him nine typewritten drafts, with handwritten annotations, of the first page of his version of Beowulf (Additional MS 78917). When visiting us in 2009, Seamus Heaney expressed his delight to see examples of his draft displayed alongside the original manuscript of Beowulf, together with paintings loaned by Michael Foreman, the illustrator of Michael Morpurgo's re-telling of the story for children.


A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Additional 78917).

Before appearing onstage at the British Library, Seamus Heaney had attended the previous evening's performance by Benjamin Bagby, who sings the story of Beowulf and Grendel in the original Old English, to the accompaniment of the harp. I gave Heaney a copy of our Treasures in Focus introduction to Beowulf, and he very kindly signed my own copy of his Beowulf translation. I thanked him for so kindly agreeing to perform in our event; but no, the pleasure was his, he replied, it had been a privilege to see Bagby sing Beowulf, the poem which Seamus Heaney had in turn transformed into a modern masterpiece. It was one of those truly special moments, to witness the coming together of two great poets, wordsmiths who lived a thousand years apart but were united by their love of the poetic form.

The Old English poem Beowulf ends with the burial of the eponymous hero. We can do Seamus Heaney no better compliment than to repeat here the same lines in his own words, with the gracious permission of Faber and Faber, his publishers.

"Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,

chieftain's sons, champions in battle,

all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

mourning his loss as a man and a king.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home."


Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts