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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

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

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The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

Dragon

A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

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01 December 2016

A Calendar Page for December 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 December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December.  On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head.  The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough).  On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn. 

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword.  He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world).  The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’.   These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).

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Calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

More on this glorious month follows.  Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings.  On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’.  A lovely image.   The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly.  It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!

-   Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)

30 November 2016

Turning the Tide

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1000 years ago, on 30 November 1016, the Scandinavian leader Cnut became king of all England following the death of Edmund Ironside. What do you know about King Cnut? Ask a British or Danish person of a certain age, and they’ll probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him. This image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change.

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Detail of King Cnut, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

However, if you come to our display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, assembled for the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest, you will not find any references to Cnut turning back the tide. You’ll find a lot of other things, including Beowulf, a charter, a copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s lawcodes, and the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime. But the story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide — the only story most people know about Cnut — is a much later invention, as many scholars have noted in the face of the story's enduring popular appeal.

Arundel 46   f. 2
Opening page from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England , c. 1400-1450, Arundel MS 46, f. 2r.

The story is often attributed to Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle, written more than a century after Cnut died. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command any waves. However, once told the story became very popular, and there are a range of later medieval retellings of this story. 

As some historians have noted, Henry’s account does point us towards an important aspect of Cnut’s career which can be verified: his extravagant piety. In Henry’s account, Cnut used his failure to control the waves to make the pious point that only God has supreme control over nature. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign on display in the Treasures Gallery show that Cnut went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king.

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Drawing showing Cnut and his queen donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

Cnut was known for his lavish gifts to churches. The Treasures Gallery display includes a charter written in 1018 which recorded Cnut giving woodland to the archbishop of Canterbury, at the encouragement of his queen, Emma. The New Minster Liber Vitae, also on display in the Treasures Gallery, lists Cnut as one of the most important benefactors of the New Minster at Winchester. Its opening drawing shows Cnut and his queen donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the case of the New Minster Liber Vitae, however, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: on the contrary, angels descend to affix the crown to his head. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for kings of England who supported the Church and whose rule in turn benefitted from the Church’s social and cultural support. 

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Cnut gives woodland to Ælfstan Lyfing, archbishop of Canterbury, at the request of Queen Emma (Ælfgifu), England (Eadwig Basan, scribe of Christ Church, Canterbury), Stowe Charter 38.

Cnut may have been keen to highlight his good Christian credentials because he was a conqueror who came from Scandinavia, a region to which Christianity had been introduced relatively recently. It is unlikely that Cnut himself was ever a pagan. However, many English laws and sermons from the end of Æthelred’s reign had framed Cnut’s and Swein’s invasion as an attack by barbarians, a punishment from God for the sins of the English. Not all Anglo-Saxons viewed Scandinavians so negatively: the story of Beowulf, which featured a pagan Scandinavian as the titular hero, was being retold and copied around the time of Cnut's conquest. Nevertheless, after conquering England in 1016, Cnut seems to have been keen to reassure his new subjects that his regime would be a return to business as usual.

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Detail of Emma, from Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

One point of continuity was Cnut's queen. Cnut married the widow of his predecessor, Æthelred the Unready: Emma of Normandy, or Ælfgifu as the English called her. She appears next to Cnut in the image from the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the author of Stowe Charter 38 emphasized that she was the one gave Cnut the idea to donate the woodland to the archbishop. Cnut also hired the same person to write his laws as had written Æthelred’s laws: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, one of the sermonizers who had denounced Cnut's invasion as divine retribution for the sins of the English. Cnut’s laws of 1020, drafted by Wulfstan, borrow heavily from previous laws of Anglo-Saxon kings. They even command the celebration of English saints, like Edward the Martyr and St Dunstan.

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Detail of Cnut’s Winchester lawcode (also known as I- II Cnut), England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 11v.

So, was Cnut an overconfident king, a committed Christian, a nervous conqueror trying to build bridges with a population who may have viewed him as a divine punishment, or all of the above? Come and see some manuscripts connected to his conquest in the Treasures Gallery (or on Digitised Manuscripts) and decide for yourself. There’s much more to Cnut than the story about him and the sea.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval