THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

27 May 2016

Utopia 500

At the start of Thomas More’s Utopia the narrator describes a fictional meeting with a stranger in Antwerp. The man is sunburned, his beard is untrimmed, his cloak hangs carelessly from his shoulder. He appears to be a sea-captain. Later, the narrator is informed that ‘there is no human alive who can give you more information about unknown peoples and lands, and I know you are very eager to hear about them.’ After some description of exotic lands and mythic beasts, the sea-captain – Raphael Hythloday – tells the narrator about a place called ‘Utopia’, a Communist island of religious toleration where a national system of education is open to both men and women. The island’s inhabitants work for only six hours a day and have access to free healthcare. Divorce and euthanasia are legal. The word, ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere land’.

Utopia frontispiece

The Frontispiece of the original edition of 'Utopia', showing the fictional, Utopian alphabet. Published in Louvain : Arte Theodorici Martini, 1516 (C.27.b.30.)

More’s Utopia – a radical work of political fiction -- is one of the most influential texts in the Western literary and philosophical tradition. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the work’s publication, in Louvain, in 1516. Its author, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was an English lawyer, diplomat, statesman, writer and philosopher, who worked for Henry VIII. Throughout the text, the often humorous dialogue between the narrator and Raphael Hythloday allowed More to voice his anger at the social injustice he saw in English society in the early 16th century. The issues he raised included the problems of political influence and capitalism, the role of surveillance, education, the nature of citizenship, and the relationship between urban and rural spaces. These issues are as topical for us today as they were for More. Utopia has a timeless relevance.

 To mark the 500th anniversary we have a new display in the Treasures Gallery which seeks to place the author and his work in their historical context and illustrate the circumstances under which the text was written. The display brings together printed books and manuscripts.

The manuscripts give a sense of More’s intellectual environment and patronage by Henry VIII. Here you can see a beautifully illustrated copy of More’s verses on the king’s coronation. Henry VIII’s  support was vital for More’s career. In 1517, he joined the King’s Council and in 1529 was appointed Lord Chancellor.  But it was his relationship with Henry that would, ultimately, lead to his untimely death. A devout Catholic, More refused to acknowledge Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, after the Reformation, and in 1535 he was executed for treason. 

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Thomas More's Verses on the Coronation of Henry VIII, London, 1509, Cotton MS Titus D iv, ff.12v-13

Alongside the selection of manuscripts, you can see a series of printed books which illustrate the text’s popularity and its afterlives. In the period that followed its publication, the Latin text was translated multiple times -- into German in 1524, Italian in 1548, French in 1550, English in 1551, Dutch in 1553, and Spanish in 1637. It was subsequently re-published in different forms and also established a new literary genre, that of the Utopian novel, which soon developed in its own right. Utopia is a work which continues to inspire authors and artists to the present day – many works of modern science fiction use the form of the Utopian novel. The display runs until 18th September.

~ Mary Wellesley

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

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Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

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Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

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Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

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St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

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Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

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Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

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Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

Arundel ms 74 f2v
Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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.

Little and Large 2
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.

Taverner Pratyerbook Ruler
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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