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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

28 September 2016

The Book Banner Who Inspired Banned Books

25 September to 1 October is Banned Books Week, when the American Library Association raises awareness of books which have been challenged over the past year to encourage freedom of expression and education. In the ALA's lists of frequently or notably banned books through the ages, the genres of utopia and dystopia feature prominently. From A Brave New World to 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale to various works of H.G. Wells and even the Wonder Woman comics, works about imaginary societies have often attracted controversy and censorship. 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the work which gave these genres their names: Thomas More’s Utopia. Ironically, however, for the forerunner of such controversial genres, Thomas More was a keen book-banner himself.

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Thomas More's Verses on the Coronation of Henry VIII, London, 1509, Cotton MS Titus D IV, f. 12v

As chancellor to Henry VIII, More arranged for the burning of early Protestant books which he considered to be dangerous,  'pestiferous... sent to this realm to pervert the people from the true faith of Christ, to stir them to sedition against their princes, to cause them to contemn [sic] all good laws... to the desolation of this noble realm' (ed. by J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, Tudor Royal Proclamations (New Haven: Yale, 1964), vol I, p. 194). Only  a few months after becoming chancellor, More drafted a list of forbidden books, promulgated on 22 June 1530. This included a ban on books in English printed outside of England. Earlier, Henry VIII had been among the first rulers in Europe to issue an index of banned books, in 1526. The exception to this ban, oddly enough, was More himself. He was granted a special dispensation by Cuthbert Tunstall, then Bishop of London, on 7 March 1528 to read Protestant works in order to refute them.

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

Similarly, More imagined his perfect island of Utopia as a place physically and intellectually cut off from the rest of the world and its destructive ideas. He portrayed Utopia as intellectually remote by giving Utopians their own language, with an imaginary alphabet probably made by his friend Peter Giles and words for some unique concepts which he claimed did not translate directly into Latin. To some extent, the alphabet and map at the beginning of More’s work were also a way for More to continue the conceit that he was writing a travel guide to a place called Utopia, in the vein of earlier works like John Mandeville’s Travels, as Karma Lochrie has noted. Copies of Mandeville’s work sometimes also included the alphabets of the various languages he claimed to have encountered during his voyages. Additionally, however, Utopia's imaginary language may have been a way to extend censorship to More’s ideal world. Although all Utopians were supposed to be highly educated and to view a liberal education as the greatest of all pleasures, with their distinct language More’s Utopians would be unable to understand or read the ideas which More claimed had led to bad education and bad behaviour amongst Europeans.  

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Miniature of John Mandeville travelling to Constantinople, from illustrations for Sir John Mandeville's Voyage d'outre mer, Bohemia, c. 1400-1425, Add MS 24189, f. 4v

More’s work enjoyed almost immediate success when it was first published: it was soon republished and translated into many different languages. Nevertheless, if More had published his work today he might have found himself on lists of banned books, like later utopias and dystopias. The original Utopia advocated the overthrow of the rich, compulsory nudity for engaged couples, slavery as a punishment for adultery and a ban on lawyers, amongst other things. So, for Banned Books Week, spare a thought for Thomas More—the spiritual ancestor of both people who want to ban books and of some of the authors who find their books banned.

 

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the author, curator Christian Algar on the  â€˜corrected’ Il Decamerone and curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity.

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Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.

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Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.

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The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.

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The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.

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The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.

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Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval

25 September 2016

The Ceolfrith Leaves Are 1300 Years Old

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25 September 2016 marks the 1300th anniversary of the death of Abbot Ceolfrith of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This means that three sets of fragments in the British Library have had their 1300th birthday. Abbot Ceolfrith is most well-known for the trip he intended to make to Rome at the end of his life, to present a majestic manuscript to the pope. Sadly, Ceolfrith passed away at the grand age of 74 before he reached the Holy City, and the manuscript he brought with him on his journey never found its way to Rome. The manuscript was instead kept at the Abbey of the Saviour, Monte Amiata in Tuscany, before it moved to its current home, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

This legendary manuscript is now known as the Codex Amiatinus, and is famous for its great size, extravagant design, and for being the oldest complete copy of the Vulgate Bible in existence. The manuscript is over 48cm tall, weighs 35kg and has more than one thousand pages. As can be seen in the photograph below, it was an extremely impressive manuscript and was designed to make a statement.

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The Codex Amiatinus on display, photographed by Maxence

What makes the achievements of the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow even more remarkable is that they not only produced the Codex Amiatinus, but also two more copies of this great Bible. In Bede’s History of the Abbots he described how Abbot Ceolfrith had commissioned three copies of the Bible, ‘one of which he took with him as a present when he went back to Rome in his old age, and the other two he bequeathed to his monasteries’ (trans. by J.F. Webb, in D.H. Farmer (ed.), The Age of Bede, (London, 1983).) Within the collections here at the British Library are a number of fragments which are believed to be the remains of the two bibles which remained in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Page from the Middleton Leaves, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 45025, f. 3v

These show that in addition to their magnificent size, the interior of these pandects was also designed to be visually impressive. The script and decorative images were specifically chosen to replicate an Italian design. This Italian style of script was different in many ways to another script which was commonly used in Northern England at the same time. Can you spot the differences between this script used in the Codex Amiatinus and Ceolfrith Leaves and the script used in an early copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History?


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Left: detail of script from the Greenwell Leaf, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 37777, f. 1v; Right: 
Detail of script from Bede, Ecclesiastical History, England (Southumbria or Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 875-925, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 15r

The British Library’s fragments all survive in the form of single leaves of parchment and are catalogued under three separate references, Add MS 45025, Add MS 37777 and Loan MS 81. These fragments have all taken rather unique and remarkable journeys from the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow into the collection here at the British Library. The fragments in Additional MS 45025, more commonly known as the Middleton Leaves, were discovered being used as covers for deeds pertaining to the lands owned by the Willoughby family of Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire). These fragments were bought from Lord Middleton in 1937 by the Friends of the National Libraries for the British Museum. A previous blog post also discussed the possible link between these fragments and a ‘great Bible’ given to the monks of Worcester by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. 

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Add MS 45025, f.6r.

This fragment represents both stages in the lifecycle of these pieces of parchment. The parchment contains an extract of the Book of Kings in the original script, with its characteristically Italian style which can still be seen in the Codex Amiatinus today. In the upper margin it is also possible to see the later annotations made to the parchment when the leaf was used by the Willoughby family to wrap land grants. Fragments of manuscripts have often been reused in creative ways, as discussed in this blog post

When viewing these leaves on Digitised Manuscripts, it is easy to forget that they were once part of two great Bibles which would have matched the magnificent size and splendour of the Codex Amiatinus. These three Bibles would have been an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship, using a wealth of resources to produce, and would have been extremely impressive to those at the height of Anglo-Saxon and Italian society. The Codex Amiatinus and its two sister pandects are most definitely among brightest lights of intellectual achievement which shine from the supposed ‘Dark Ages’.

Rebecca Lawton

@BLMedieval

Further reading:

Another incredibly important manuscript which was supposedly produced by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow was the St Cuthbert Gospel. This is a copy of the gospel of St John, which was produced in honour of St Cuthbert in the late 7th century and was buried within his coffin. This manuscript shows the same beautiful uncial script found in the Codex Amiatinus. More information about how this manuscript came to reside in the care of the British Library can be found two previous blog posts.