THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

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487 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

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The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

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Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

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Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scaleliterallythe British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

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The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

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Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

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Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible

01 May 2016

A Calendar Page for May 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 May from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

All is lovely and bright in these calendar pages for May, in keeping with the joys of this most splendid of months.

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Detail of miniatures of a man going hawking and the zodiac sign Gemini, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

At the bottom of the folio is a typical ‘labour’ for May, albeit one in keeping with the aristocratic emphasis of this manuscript.  On the left is a miniature of a man hawking, clad in luxurious clothing (note particularly the gold-embroidered stockings he is sporting).  He rides a gray horse through a rural landscape with a castle in the distance.  A similar landscape can be found to the right, where two blonde androgynous figures embrace, for the zodiac sign Gemini.  They stand behind a gilded shield, which has been adorned by pricking in an excellent example of gold work.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the seven Pleiades, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

The rubrics at the bottom of the folio add another dimension of understanding to the other miniature roundels for this month.  On the upper right of this folio is a painting of the seven Pleiades, the mythological daughters of the titan Atlas and a sea-nymph.  The eldest of these daughters is Maia (labelled Maya on the painting), who was the mother of Mercury (Hermes).  The rubric informs us that the month of May is named after May, ‘because the aforesaid Mercury is called the god of eloquence and the master of rhetoric and marketing’ (‘merchandise’).  This must certainly be a very early use of that latter term!

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Calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

The emphasis on aristocratic and/or divine love continues on the following folio.  The rubrics on this folio describe how Honour was married to Reverence, a marriage we can see witness by a group of praying men.   Below this is a scene depicting ‘how the ancient nobles governed the people and the queens loved them’.  A very pleasant image indeed!

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Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Honour and Reverence and the governance of a city, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

-  Sarah J Biggs

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

01 April 2016

Fool’s Paradise

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It’s that time of the year when lambs frolic in the fields, British summertime begins, and people play practical jokes on their friends. Of course, the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team has never succumbed to the temptation of perpetrating an April Fool. All of our stories published on this most auspicious day have been 100% genuine like, um, the discovery of the unicorn cookbook, the one about the Loch Ness Monster, and the time we spotted a spaceship in a medieval Book of Hours.

Jester     Monkey

(Left) Detail of a miniature of a fool, from Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 266r (Right) Detail of a miniature with a jester, from Laurent de Premierfait’s translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes), Bruges, c. 1479-80, Royal MS 14 E V, f. 5r

Here are some amusing facts about medieval fools and jesters with which to impress your friends. How many of these did you already know?

1. The origins of the April Fool are lost in the mists of time. It has recently been suggested that the first April Fool’s joke may have been played by Gaston Le Faux (his name translates as ‘the False’), a 13th-century French troubadour. Gaston is reputed to have disguised himself as a fish and hidden under a platter at a banquet, in order to impress the ladies. The reaction of the onlookers is undocumented, as is Gaston’s own fate, but to this day the French still cry “poisson” whenever they play a practical joke on April Fool’s Day.

2. Modern stereotypes about medieval 'fools’ and ‘jesters’ are often derived from playwrights and novelists such as William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo (who notably imagined the ‘Feast of Fools’ in his Hunchback of Notre Dame).

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Kenneth Wicksteed as Touchstone in Shakespeare's As You Like It (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1932)

3. The medieval entertainers we know as ‘jesters’ were mostly storytellers, minstrels and musicians. Chaucer mentions ‘All manner of minstrales, And jestours, that tellen tales’ in his House of Fame.

Juggler    Musician

(Left) Detail of a juggler representing the third musical mode, from Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, c. 1075-1125, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v (Right) Detail of a musician representing the second musical mode, Harley MS 4951, f. 297v.

4. In medieval Denmark, people often dressed as trees and bushes to ward off madmen and evil spirits on April Fool's Day.

5. Depictions of fools are often found in illustrated Psalters, inspired by the story of King David and the fool. This tale appears in the first Old Testament book of Samuel and describes the mistakes of the ‘foolish’ rich man Nabal, who refused to give provisions to David and his men, and was later struck down by the Lord for his folly.

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Detail of the historiated initial 'D'with David and a fool at the beginning of Psalm 52, from the Rutland Psalter, London?, c. 1250, Add MS 62925, f. 56r

6. Not everybody likes April Fool jokes. In 1569, the Archbishop of Prague preached a sermon at St Vitus Cathedral, denouncing clowns and other pranksters as 'weasels, vipers, and worse than moles'. He was subsequently pelted by his congregation with tomatoes and rotten food, before being escorted back to his palace by the bodyguard of the King of Bohemia.

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A star-nosed mole, the unintentional target of the Archbishop of Prague's vitriol

7. The most famous early modern image of a fool is found in the Psalter of Henry VIII at the British Library, at the beginning of Psalm 52. This shows King Henry himself, styled as King David, and his fool, Will Sommers, as Nabal.

  Henry

Miniature of David and the Fool, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, England (London), c. 1540-1541, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v

No doubt, Will Sommers and other jesters and fools would be smiling proudly at all the tricks played throughout the world today.

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Historiated initial with a fool, from the Great Bible, London, c. 1400-25, Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 148r

Dixit

Detail of the historiated initial 'D'(ixit) with David and a fool at the beginning of Psalm 52, from the Howard Psalter, East Anglia, c. 1308-40, Arundel MS 83 , f. 40v 

Pig

Drawing of a pig playing bagpipes, a jester showing his genitals, a man blowing a flute or pipe, and various hybrid creatures, from Pseudo-Aristotle, De caelo, De anima, England, 1487, Sloane MS 748, f. 82v 

~ The Medieval Manuscripts Team

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.

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