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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

23 February 2017

Old English 'Spell' Books

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In the list of books bequeathed by Bishop Leofric of Exeter (d. 1072) to his cathedral, one entry might, at first glance, take a modern reader by surprise: a ‘ful spelboc’, or a full spell book.  This is not, however, evidence that the learned bishop was dabbling in magic. In Old English, spell just meant ‘saying’ or ‘speech’.

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Different sorts of ‘spells’: miniature of Cuthbert preaching from a copy of Bede's Prose Life of Cuthbert. England (Durham), c. 1175–1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 22v

The term ‘spell’ had a range of meanings in Old English. As a noun, it could mean story, discourse or message. For example, it was applied to the tale told about Beowulf, a story (spel) crafted skilfully by a ‘boast-laden man, mindful of songs’. Old English writers also used spell to refer to learned discourses or works of history. Spell could also mean news or message, as in the English translation of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion): ‘gospel’, or ‘good spell’. As a verb, it meant ‘to talk’ or ‘to converse’. (Ironically, the modern English verb ‘to spell’ actually comes from the French épeler, although that also has a proto-Germanic root.) 'Spells' only seem to have become associated with magic much later: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first recorded use of ‘spell’ to mean magical incantation was in 1579, in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. In Old English, terms like galdor or seiðr seem to have been used for incantations and charms, in some contexts. In the case of Leofric’s spell book, then, ‘spell’ probably referred to speeches or sermons in Old English, intended to instruct listeners about Biblical and church history and to inspire them to think about their own lives.

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The word ‘spel’ from Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 152r

Although some items on Leofric’s list have been identified with manuscripts which survive to this day (including a collectar and a book of riddles and poetry), scholars have yet to agree on whether any surviving books of Old English sermons are Leofric’s ‘ful spelboc’. The British Library does, however, possess a few sermons which were copied at Leofric’s Exeter, in the opening folios of Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII. These include sermons for different times of year, like the second Sunday after Easter, sermons for special occasions, like the dedication of a church, and other sermons that could have been used at any time. It ends with a promise a king was supposed to make at his consecration, to uphold justice and protect his people. These folios are now followed by a life of St Dunstan and a later history.

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Sermon on the beginning of creation, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 13r

In addition to the sermons in Cotton Cleopatra B XIII, the British Library has many other Old English ‘spellbooks’, including some of the earliest known copies of Ælfric’s sermons and books of Old English sermons produced several decades after the Norman Conquest, showing the continuing use of Old English (such as Cotton MS Faustina A IX).

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‘Understand that the Devil has led this nation astray for many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men!’
Copy of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English with Wulfstan’s own annotations, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Reading these Old English sermons, one can see how they fit the many meanings of ‘spell’, in Old and Modern English. They often include retellings of exciting stories: contrary to the modern stereotype about sermons being boring, these Old English sermons feature cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing monks, miraculous animals, and more. These sermons were also supposed to act like modern magical spells, in the sense that they were intended to change the speakers’ world by persuading listeners to alter or stop their behaviours: see the bombastic ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’, written by Archbishop Wulfstan of Worcester-York during the Second Viking Age. These speakers and their spells knew the power of words, even without any magical force behind them.

So if you use words in any form today, remember: you are casting spells, in the oldest sense of the word. Use them well!

 

Alison Hudson

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21 February 2017

Medieval Shelfies

Our colleagues in the British Library's publishing team (otherwise known as @bl_publishing) recently spent a day managing the Library's Twitter account. Throughout the day, they encouraged followers to send in their shelfies, i.e. selfies of their bookcases. Sharing shelfies has recently become a popular social media trend among bibliophiles and literature enthusiasts. However, the appreciation of the aesthetic value of books and bookcases is not just a modern day phenomenon. Medieval manuscripts contain many images which depict books being stored in various styles of bookcases and shelves. Certain physical features of manuscripts themselves can also suggest how books were stored to be both visually attractive and accessible for the reader. 

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Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames ('De Lof der Vrouwen'), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

Most depictions of bookcases in medieval manuscripts can be found in images of scribes writing in a scriptorium. Within these images it is rare to see books stored with their spines facing outwards as is common today. There is evidence that books were stored in a number of different ways, such as stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. In the image below, the Dominican friar and author Vincent of Beauvais is pictured writing at his desk, surrounded by books stored with their covers on display (or easily covered by a green curtain). This method of storage may have been used for luxury books with lavish, embellished bindings. A previous post on our blog, discussing detached bindings in our collections, provides an idea of how decorative book covers could be.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book, from Le miroir historial (a French translation of his Speculum historiale, translated by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, 1479-1480. British Library, Royal 14 E I volume 1, f.3r

Alternatively, books could be placed flat or even stacked on top of each other, as in the famous image of the Old Testament scribe and priest, Ezra. Behind Ezra is a special kind of book-cupboard, in which the books were laid flat next to one another. This image is taken from the Codex Amiatinus, a complete copy of the Bible which dates to the early 8th century. This manuscript was written in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, on the north-eastern coast of modern-day England, and was intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Wearmouth-Jarrow was also home to the Venerable Bede, who would have been writing in the scriptorium at the same time as this manuscript was being produced. It is possible that the bookcase and writing desk in the image were inspired by those at the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century.

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The 'Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

These images do not show the titles of the books on display, unlike modern shelfies. For that sort of shelfie from the medieval period, there are booklists or inventories, which record the books held at a particular library or institution. These lists are extremely useful for scholars trying to reconstruct the contents of ancient and medieval libraries which have been separated or lost over time. By understanding the contents of medieval libraries, it is also possible to identify specific texts which influenced the work of medieval authors.

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List of books from the Augustinian priory of St Mary, Bridlington, Yorkshire. The list is headed ‘Books of the big book-cupboard’ ('Libri magni armarii'). Rubrics separate lists of books by Ambrose, Hugh of Saint-Victor and Anselm, while others are grouped as glossed books or small books (the latter perhaps on shallower shelves). From a glossed copy of St Mark's Gospel, Northern England, c. 1150-1200. British Library, Harley MS 50, f. 48v

Booklists also provide an insight into the interests of individual patrons of books and libraries. For example, the booklist below was copied into a 10th-century manuscript and records the collection of an otherwise unknown Æthelstan. The contents of this list suggest that he was interested in works of grammar and rhetoric.

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List of Æthelstan’s books, England, c. 940-980. British Library Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.55v.

The physical appearance of manuscripts can also suggest how they were stored, and what medieval bookcases might have looked like. In a previous post, we discussed an unusual 12th-century manuscript which still retains the fur of the animal skin used for its binding. The binding also features small metal roundels and some metal bosses which protrude from the cover. These metal roundels may have been added to protect the books and provide support when they were stored in bookcases.

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Detail of the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Meanwhile, this 9th-century Gospel-book provides a clue that it may have been stored with its fore-edges facing out.  While the titles of modern books are written on books' spines, because we usually store books with spines facing out, the title of this book is written on the edges of the pages.

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Detail of the title added to the fore-edge of a Gospel-book containing the Gospels of St Luke and St John, Corvey?, c. 875-900. British Library Egerton MS 768

An item in the British Library's collection of papyri also helps our understanding of the appearance of ancient libraries. Below is a small papyrus label which dates to the 2nd century, and was attached to a papyrus containing the words of Baccylides, a Greek lyric poet. These labels would have been attached to papyrus scrolls in order to make specific texts easier to find within larger collections.

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A 2nd-century papyrus fragment of Bacchylides retains its parchment label, used to identify the volume on a bookshelf. British Library Papyrus 2056

The word 'shelfie' is a portmanteau combining the words shelf and selfie. A previous post on medieval selfies demonstrated that self-portraiture was popular long before the rise of front facing cameras and selfie sticks. Shelfies, too, clearly have a history that is older than the creation of the Twitter hashtag!

Becky Lawton

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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

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The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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