Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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 March 2018

Cracking a medieval code

Cryptography is not something we normally associate with medieval manuscripts. But some medieval scribes understood the basics of code-making: constructing text using a cypher to be decoded and understood only by authorized parties. Anglo-Saxon scribes were masters at this, without the ‘espionage’ and political edge that cryptography would later acquire in the early modern period. The interest in code may be related to the popularity of riddles for which Anglo-Saxon England is famous. In some instances, codes were placed at the end of a manuscript as a way to record information relating to how a manuscript was produced and the people who were involved in its production. A colophon, as this information is called, was the preferred place for encrypted information in the Middle Ages.

For instance, as we wrote in a previous blogpost, a scribe called Ælfsige left his name in code, as well as that of the book's owner, in the colophon of Cotton MS Titus D XXVII:

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f013v - Copy

The encrypted colophon: Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

The cypher consists of replacing vowels with the neighbouring consonants in the alphabet. The word Aelsinus (Latin for Ælfsige), the scribe’s name, was here encoded as ‘Flsknxs’ (in medieval manuscripts, the letter ‘s’ resembled the letter ‘f’). 

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f013v - Copy - Copy

The book belonged to a fellow monk called Ælfwine (Ælfwinus in Latin), whose name was encrypted as ‘Flfƿknp’. This time, the cypher is slightly different. ‘P’ here replaces ‘us’. The first letter that looks like 'p' in this inscription is the runic letter 'wynn', which early English writers sometimes used to represent the 'w' sound.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f013v - Copy - Copy (2)

The encrypted text is much longer and explains that Ælfsige, ‘the most humble brother and monk’, wrote the book and that ‘Ælfwinus, monk and deacon’, owned it.

This cryptic art continued in the late Middle Ages. In a manuscript produced in France in the second half of the 12th century, containing medical works (Egerton MS 2900), the scribe used the same kind of cypher to mark the end of his copying effort, and not without effect.


The colophon follows the inscription ‘Explicit liber’ (The book ends [here]): Egerton MS 2900, f. 102v

The last line, crossed through in red ink (a form of medieval highlighting), reads: ‘'Dkgnxs fst ppfrbrkxs mfrcfdf sxb’. The scribe also marked off the sentence from the rest of the text with red-and-blue line fillers, as shown in the image below.

Egerton_ms_2900_f102v - Copy

The encrypted text is highlighted: Egerton MS 2900, f. 102v

This encrypted message can be decoded using the same consonant-for-vowel technique, which yields the following text: ‘Dignus est operarius mercede sua’. The Latin comes from the Gospel of Luke (chapter 10, verse 7) and states that ‘the worker is worthy of his reward’.

In a late 11th- or early 12th-century French manuscript (Royal MS 13 A XI), the scribe included Bede's explanation about how numbers can be substituted for letters based on their order in the alphabet. They can then be communicated via a system of finger-reckoning. Bede explained that, ‘if you wish to warn a friend who is among traitors to act cautiously, show with your fingers [the signs for] 3, 1, 20, 19, 5 and 1, 7, 5; in this order, the letters signify ‘act cautiously’ (caute age in Latin) (Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 33v). The finger signs from 1 to 9000 are presented in a reference table.


The sign-language of finger-reckoning: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 33v

Bede also assured his readers that, if ‘greater secrecy is demanded,’ the Greek alphabet can help with a stronger level of encryption. The number values for Greek letters could be correlated with the Latin alphabet; any Latin word could thus be written in Greek code, based on their order in the alphabet and the number value of the relevant Greek letter.


Coding basics, with Greek letters being assigned a number value: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 34r


Cristian Ispir

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

Add comment Comments (0)

Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix heifmoeder’ (echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’). Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.


Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

011HRL000002278U00013V00 - Copy

Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

Royal 16 g vii

Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r


Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 


Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.


Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))


A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.


Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 March 2018

Medieval lucky charms

Add comment Comments (1)

Today is St Patrick’s Day, and to celebrate all things Irish we are exploring medieval Irish charms in the British Library's collections. The use of protective charms in Ireland can be traced back to the early medieval period, and possibly to St Patrick’s own lifetime.


St Patrick asleep, with a figure holding a book, France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 213v


Text page of the lorica of St Patrick, 15th century: Egerton MS 93, f. 19r

A lorica is a medieval Christian charm or prayer that will grant Divine protection when invoked. In classical Latin, the word ‘lorica’ refers to a protective breastplate worn as armour by Roman soldiers. The lorica of St Patrick, or St Patrick’s Breastplate, was supposedly composed by the saint himself to celebrate the victory of the Irish Church over paganism. The British Library houses one of only three surviving medieval copies of this charm, in a 15th-century manuscript containing an account in Middle Irish of St Patrick’s life (now Egerton MS 93). The lorica is also composed in Middle Irish, and is formed of seven verses beginning Attoruig indiu nert triun togairm trinoite (‘I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity’). A preface accompanies the lorica in an 11th-century manuscript known as the Liber hymnorum (Trinity College Dublin MS 1441), which states that the prayer was written to safeguard St Patrick and his monks against deadly enemies and would protect anyone who read it from devils and sudden death.


Text page of the lorica of St Fursey: Add MS 30512, f. 35v

Another notable protective charm is attributed to St Fursey (d. c. 650), an Irish monk from modern day Co. Galway and the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England in c. 630. The only known copy of St Fursey’s lorica survives in a Middle Irish collection of theological works composed in the 15th and 16th centuries, known as the Leabhar Uí Maolconaire (Add MS 30512). Like the lorica of St Patrick, St Fursey’s prayer invokes the power of the Holy Trinity to protect one against evil. The text begins Robé mainrechta Dé forsind [f]ormnassa (‘The arms of God be around my shoulders’).


Head, shoulders, knees and bones: the opening of the lorica of Laidcenn to protect the body, late 8th or early 9th century: Harley MS 2965, f. 38r

Protective Irish charms also survive in medieval English manuscripts, such the Book of Nunnaminster (Harley MS 2965), produced in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century. This manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the lorica of Laidcenn (d. c. 660), a monk and scholar at the monastery of Clonfert-Mulloe in modern day Co. Laois. The text was copied in Latin, and invokes the protection of individual limbs and body parts from demons, including the eyes:

Deliver all the limbs of me a mortal

with your protective shield guarding every member,

lest the foul demons hurl their shafts

into my sides, as is their wont.

Deliver my skull, head with hair and eyes.

mouth, tongue, teeth and nostrils,

neck, breast, side and limbs,

joints, fat and two hands.

In the same manuscript, Laidcenn’s lorica is accompanied by a prayer against poison. These many surviving protective charms give new meaning to the saying, ‘the luck of the Irish’!


A charm against poison: Harley MS 2965, f. 37r


Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval



Edition and translation of the preface and lorica of St Patrick: Whitley Stokes & John Strachan (eds.), Thesaurus palaeohibernicus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 354–58.

Translation of the lorica of St Fursey: John Ó Ríordáin, The Music of What Happens (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1996) pp. 46–47.

Edition and translation of the lorica of Laidcenn: Michael W. Herren, The Hisperica famina (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 76–89.