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23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

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Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history. 

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Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v

The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Ã†thelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).

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Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v

In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities. 

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Detail of a list of benefactors including â€˜Ã†Ã°elred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Ã†thelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r

In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.

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Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r

Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.

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Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v

Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a  fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).

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Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).

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Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r

These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.

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Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r

These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.

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Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from  Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.

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Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Ã†thelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.

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Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v

Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.

~Alison Hudson

20 April 2016

A Firsthand Experience: Great Writers' Handwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Alison Hudson

Read More about Previously Digitised Autograph Manuscripts:

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Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen

Digitised Manuscripts Update 

Chronicles of Holland Online

Documentary of a Royal Coronation

07 April 2016

Everything’s Coming Up (Roman de la) Roses

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by Chantry Westwell

Spring is in the air and April is upon us, so it is high time for a floral gift to our readers. Here it is: all 14 of our Roman de la Rose  manuscripts have now been fully digitised and are or will soon be available online at Digitised Manuscripts

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Detail of the God of Love locking the Lover's heart with a large gold key, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Additional MS 42133, f. 15r

The ‘Roman de la Rose’, the most famous allegorical love poem of all time, was composed in France in the thirteenth century, at the height of the age of chivalry and courtly love. It was a best-seller in the Middle Ages, with over 300 manuscripts surviving from the 13th to the 16th centuries (many more than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).  This work exerted a strong influence on literature in France and beyond: Dante, Petrarch, Gower and Chaucer were well acquainted with it and the latter’s Middle English ‘Romaunt de la Rose’ is a partial translation.

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Historiated initial 'M'(aintes) of the lovers sleeping, with a full border bar border at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 15th century, Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 2r

Our collections are representative of the types of Rose manuscripts produced, mainly in France: some have extensive cycles of miniatures and others, for more modest patrons, have little or no decoration. Below, a page from one of the most lavishly illuminated copies, made in Bruges, is compared to a plainer manuscript from France; both were produced in the 15th century.

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Miniature of the Lover outside the Castle of Jealousy, where Bel Accueil (Fair Welcome) is imprisoned by Jealousy, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

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Text page with decorated initials from the Roman de la Rose, France, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 D VII, f. 39r

The first part of the Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris, consists of about 4030 lines composed between 1225 and 1245 and tells of the Lover’s dream in which he is let into the garden by Oiseuse (Idleness), and there he takes part in a carole or dance, meets representatives of the courtly virtues, including Amour and  Doux Regard (Sweet glance) and sees the fountain where Narcissus fell in love with his own image and perished.  Narcissus and the fountain is a popular subject with artists, featuring in most series of Rose illuminations

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Detail of Narcissus at the fountain, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-1340, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 14v

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The Lover with a rosebud at Narcissus’ fountain, from the Roman de la Rose, France, 14th century, Additional MS 31840, f. 14r

The above are two of our earliest Rose manuscripts, dated to the first half of the 14th century, while the one below is from the second half of that century.

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Narcissus and his reflection in the water, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Egerton MS 881, f. 11r 
                                     

Finally in a late 15th-century representation the Lover sees the rose bush reflected in the fountain:

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Narcissus and the fountain, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 1475-1500, Egerton MS 2022, f. 22v

The Lover is wounded by the arrows of Amour, falling hopelessly in love with the Rose and embarks on a quest to win her love, but she is guarded by Danger, Fear and Jealousy, who erects a castle around the Rose bush (see the image above from Harley MS 4425), and imprisons Bel Acueil, his sweet accomplice. Here the section by Guillaume de Lorris ends abruptly. 

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Bel Acueil imprisoned in the castle, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris) 1320-1340, Royal MS 19 B XIII, f. 31v

Jean de Meun’s continuation, consisting of some 17,700 lines, takes up the Lover’s quest, but adds long digressions on morality and a variety of topics of contemporary interest such as free will, the influence of heavenly bodies and the increasing power of the friars in medieval society. Examples from history and legend are invoked to instruct the Lover and to illustrate the topics covered. The story of Pygmalion and the statue is included, recalling de Lorris’ reference to the legend of Narcissus.

Paulin Paris, the 19th-century manuscript scholar and French academician, dated de Meun’s composition to before 1285, as in it he refers to Charles of Anjou, who died in that year, as King of Sicily.

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Pygmalion and the statue, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 136r

The romance ends with the Lover achieving his goal of attaining the Rose, as depicted in this 15th-century manuscript.

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The Lover and the Rose, Roman de la Rose, France, 15th century, Additional MS 12042, f. 166r

The contents are summed up in the final couplet:

Explicit le Romaunt de la Rose / Ou lart d’amor est tout enclose.

Here ends the Romance of the Rose, where everything about the art of love is included.

 

04 April 2016

Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Who's Your Daddy?

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Isidore of Seville died on this day in 636. Isidore, who was born in 560, was the bishop of Seville from about 600 to his death. He is better known, however, as an author than as an administrator. His most famous work is the Etymologies, a vast reference work, which functioned as an etymological encyclopaedia. The text was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages. It represents Isidore’s ambitious attempts to condense a huge body of knowledge into a single work.

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Hedgehogs feed their young from a Bestiary attached to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, c 1200-c 1210, Northern or Central England, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v

As well as containing information on a range of subjects, like mathematics, canon law, philosophy, the human body, geography, ship-building, weights and measures and rhetoric, it also has some excellent (and highly dubious) zoological information. According to Isidore, hedgehogs feed their young by visiting vines, plucking the grapes from the plant and rolling over them in order to impale them on their spines. In the image above we can see the hedgehog doing a sterling impression of a 1970s canapé tray.

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Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 30r

Given its ambitious scope, many manuscripts of the work contain a complex extra-textual apparatus to help readers navigate the work. You can see an example of this apparatus – in this case a table of contents – in a ninth century copy of the work, below. (This is not the only ninth century copy held by the library: Harley MS 3941 has also been digitised.) It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II nominated Isidore to be the patron saint of the internet. Isidore is the perfect candidate. Like the internet, his Etymologies contains a large body of information which requires a complex searching mechanism to help you find information about medicine or law or just cool stuff about hedgehogs. 

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Table of contents, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Northern France, 9th century, Harley MS 2686, f. 5r

A particularly striking example of a 'search function' in one copy of the work-- an eleventh-century manuscript (Royal MS 6 C I), probably copied at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury-- is the affinity diagrams, laying out the relationships within members of a family. Who exactly is your second cousin twice removed? Fortunately for the reader, a simple chart should sort out the confusion. 'The grandfather of my paternal uncle,' it reads across one line, 'is my propatruus, and I am to him the niece or nephew of his son or daughter'. Relationships are labelled with both the terms for the relative and the term by which he or she would refer to the reader: both grandfather and grandson, both uncle and nephew (or niece!). Just as the world has been diagrammed, so have the intricacies of the family tree.

 

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Chart of familial affinities, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 78r

The Etymologies is also famous for its sometimes quirky explanations of the history of words. In some cases, when Isidore takes the word apart based on what it sounds like, the explanation that results can be extremely engaging, if not necessarily true. The Latin word for 'beggar' (mendicus) is now believed to derive from an earlier word meaning 'deformity' or 'lack'.  Isidore, however, speculates a much more charming story, of a 'custom among the ancients' to 'close the hungry mouth and extend a hand, as if speaking with the hand' (manu dicere).

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Etymologies of words beginning with F and G; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 10, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 82r

In other cases, Isidore’s etymologies, while colourful, are spot-on. The one he gives for the words Fornicarius and Fornicatrix (male and female prostitute) explains that these terms come from the Latin word for 'arch' (fornix), and refers to the architecture of ancient brothels. Prostitutes were understood to lie under such arches while practising their trade. This is the same explanation for the word 'fornicate' offered in the Oxford English Dictionary today!

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T-O map of the world, with east at the top, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 108v

Isidore's work had an immense influence on later medieval thinkers across Europe. For example, Isidore was the first to explain the layout of the continents in what would become the classic medieval schema, the T-O map. The world is round, with Jerusalem its spiritual as well as geographical centre, standing at the convergence between the three known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

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Opening page from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Low Countries (Munsterbilsen), c. 1130-1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 1v

Isidore's influence is also suggested by the number of copies of the Etymologies which survive, from every century of the medieval period, across Europe, copied by diverse scribes. We now have no less than ten manuscripts of Isidore's Etymologies available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. As well as those listed above, you can also see Harley MS 3099, which was, somewhat unusually, copied by eight female scribes (see image above). They were Benedictine nuns in the Abbey of Munsterbilsen near Maastricht (now Belgium), working in the period 1130-1174.

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Excerpt from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Northern France, late 8th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 37r

The earliest digitised copy is Cotton Caligula A XV  which dates from the 2nd half of the 8th century and was made in Northern France. Alongside this, you can see a late 11th-century version (Royal MS 6 C I), an early 12th-century copy (Harley MS 2660), made in the Rhineland , a mid 13th-century copy, Harley MS 6  and our youngest digitised manuscript, which is a mere five centuries old Harley MS 3035.

- Nicole Eddy, updated by Mary Wellesley

02 April 2016

A Calendar Page for April 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for April from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

Spring is well underway in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for April.

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Detail of miniatures of a man gathering leaves and the zodiac sign Taurus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

At the bottom of the first folio is the standard (for this manuscript) two-part miniature.  On the left, a man is carrying a leafy young tree past a flowing river, having presumably just trimmed the branches from the stump before him.  He is well dressed for a labourer, wearing a fur-lined surcoat and carrying a long dagger on his belt.  To his right is a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus, enjoying a lie-down in the sun.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Venus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

The marginal roundel at the right, however, displays the true central figure for the month of April – Venus, the goddess of love.   The accompanying verses tell us that April was dedicated to Venus by the pagans, because Venus (the planet) is a ‘hot and moist and drenched planet’, much like the month of April. 

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Calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v

The emphasis on Venus and April continues on the following folio.  Alongside the conclusion of April’s saints’ days are two roundels relating to the goddess.  On the middle left is a scene of the abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) in a cart drawn by two horses.  According to mythology this abduction was ultimately instigated by Venus, who envied the young girl’s beauty and ordered her son, Eros, to loose his arrows so that all would be smitten with love for her, leading ultimately to Proserpina being carried down into the depths of Hades.

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Detail of marginal roundels of the abduction of Proserpina and a flower festival, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v

The bottom roundel shows a more genial scene, illustrating, as the rubrics tell us, ‘how in April the pagans had a festival for the goddess of flowers.’

-  Sarah J Biggs

28 March 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscripts’ Hyperlinks

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

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

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

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

Particular highlights uploaded in the past three months include:

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

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

More than 3 manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose

2 collections of material related to the cult of St Cuthbert

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

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

 

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

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

Happy Viewing!

Related Content:

Previous List of Hyperlinks

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

New Digitisation Project and Positions

More information on Apocalypse Manuscripts

25 March 2016

Kassia: A Bold and Beautiful Byzantine Poet

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by Mary Wellesley & Peter Toth

It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.

Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.

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Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Pslater, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v

Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.

After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.

Epigrams

Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r 

Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.

Iconoclasm

An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r 

Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).

Annoint

The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v

A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.

Kassia poem

Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v

The text reads as follows:

"Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:

A lightless night of sin.

Accept the springs of my tears,

As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.

Bow down to the sighs of my heart,

As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.

I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.

I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise

Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.

Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?

Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul

Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless."

(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)

You can hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like here. Happy Women’s History Month!

@marywellesley

 

Further Reading:

Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.

Also In Our Series: 

Justifying Women Writers: A Medieval Poet Speaks Out

Heloise

Related:

The Books of Remarkable Women

Christine shrink

 

 

20 March 2016

Lives of Cuthbert Now Online

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by Alison Hudson

20 March was an important day in the medieval English calendar: it was St Cuthbert’s Day.

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St Cuthbert meets King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and others, from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51

St Cuthbert (d. 687) was one of the most important saints in medieval England and beyond. He was an influential figure during his own lifetime, first as a hermit whose advice was sought by kings and abbesses, then as Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his death, he became the focus of a major cult. When Cuthbert’s tomb was opened 11 years after his death, his body was reported to be incorrupt. To the monks of the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s incorrupt state was proof that he was a saint.

Harley_ms_1117_f043vMusic from an office for St Cuthbert, Southern England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Harley MS 1117, f 43v

Accounts of Cuthbert’s life, death, and miracles were written soon after by an anonymous member of the Lindisfarne community and by the Northumbrian scholar Bede, who wrote both a verse and a prose account of Cuthbert’s life and miracles. Bede also wrote extensively about Cuthbert in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Cuthbert’s community eventually moved to Durham in 995, where Cuthbert’s shrine became a major pilgrimage centre.

Four manuscripts containing some of the earliest accounts of Cuthbert’s life—written by Bede—have also recently been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts website: Harley MS 526, Harley MS 1117, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, and Cotton MS Claudius A I.

These manuscripts demonstrate how influential Cuthbert’s cult remained, even over wide geographic areas and chronological spans. The earliest of these manuscripts, a copy of Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert in Harley MS 526, was not even written in England. It was copied in Northern France, showing how Cuthbert’s cult had become known and celebrated in different regions of Europe by the 9th century.

Harley_ms_526_f001rOpening page from Bede’s Metric Vita S. Cuthberti, Northern France, late 9th century, Harley MS 526, f. 1

Similarly, Harley MS 1117 and Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX were written in the far south of England, probably in Canterbury, in the late 10th century, well outside the heartlands of Cuthbert’s community.

Tweet harley_ms_1117_f004rDetail of an initial from Harley MS 1117, f. 4

While West Saxon sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, frequently downplayed or omitted Northerners’ influence on the south, the creation of multiple fine manuscripts containing Bede’s writings on Cuthbert and offices for celebrating Cuthbert’s feast in Canterbury show that southerners still paid great attention to certain figure-heads from the north.

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Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, f. 1v

Cotton MS Claudius A I, a late 11th- or 12th-century copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert has also been digitised. It was probably copied in England, and includes accounts of many other famous saints, from Egypt to Cyprus to Arles. Incidentally, some unrelated pages bound in this manuscript contain a copy of a poem about Cuthbert’s contemporary Northumbrian churchman, Wilfrid, possibly handwritten by their 10th-century author, Frithegod, himself. Like the lavishly illustrated copy of Bede’s Vita S. Cuthberti in Yates Thompson MS 26, which has already been digitised, Cotton MS Claudius A I reflects the continuation of this cult from the 8th century, even after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

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Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England, c. 1075-1125, Cotton MS Claudius A I, f. 125v

In addition to the manuscripts listed above, the British Library has already digitised several manuscripts connected to Cuthbert and his later cult, such as the St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000), which was discovered when Cuthbert’s coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV). So please click over to our Digitised Manuscripts site and have a look at some of these manuscripts, on the 1,329th anniversary of the death of the man who inspired them all.