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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

30 July 2016

Caption Competition 6

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It's time to get your thinking caps on again. Can you think of a witty caption for the image below, taken from one of the magnificent medieval manuscripts in the British Library's collections, the incomparable Luttrell Psalter?

Tweet us your suggestions to @BLMedieval, or add a comment at the foot of this post. There is no prize, but we will retweet and update this post with some of our favourite entries. Good luck!

Lovers of gastropods out there may want to check out our blogpost Knight v Snail. And you can also view the whole of the Luttrell Psalter, for free, on our Digitised Manuscripts site.




27 July 2016

Metaphors, Misogyny and Courtly Love

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In the early 15th century, there was a major literary debate at the French court. Featuring crude language, naughty metaphors, courtly love, misogyny, poetry and early humanism, this debate was inspired by a text in some illuminated manuscripts which have just been loaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. The controversial text was the continuation of the medieval best-seller, the Roman de la rose by Jean de Meun, written 40 years after Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part of the Roman (c. 1230). Some writers, like Christine de Pizan, saw Jean de Meun’s conclusion of the Roman de la Rose as highly provocative, crude and misogynistic. For others, such as Jean de Montreuil, the continuation’s themes and naughty metaphors were just stylistic devices and an improvement of the poetic genre.

The Lover and la Vieille, Le Roman de la Rose, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425,  f. 129v

The debate took place between the king’s secretaries, clerks and Christine de Pizan between 1401 and 1405. It began with a short treatise composed in 1401 by Jean de Montreuil, the humanist and secretary of Charles VI and Provost of St Peter of Lille. In this text, now lost, Montreuil praised the Roman de la Rose and more particularly the part written by Jean de Meun. Jean de Montreuil was supported by his close friend Gontier Col, another secretary of Charles VI, and by Gontier’s brother, Pierre Col, canon of Notre-Dame.

Harley 4431   f. 4
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431
, f. 4r 

By contrast, Christine de Pizan, a famous author at the court of Charles V and Charles VI, was a fierce opponent of the continuation of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun, partly because of its misogynistic passages and lack of decency:

Mais en accordant a l’oppinion a laquelle contrediséz, sans faille a mon avis, trop traicte deshonnestment en aucunes pars – et mesmement ou personnage que il claime Raison, laquelle nommes les secréz membres plainement par nom.

'According to the viewpoint you oppose, in my opinion, he writes in several places in an indecent manner, even when he speaks as the character he calls Reason and names the secret parts explicitly.'

The monologue of Raison is one of the problematic passages Christine de Pizan underlined. She also objected to the story of the castration of Saturn and the explicit metaphor of the picking of the Rose. She also defended women, who were depicted by Jean de Meun ­­in passages involving allegorical figures like le Jaloux (the jealous one) and la Vieille (the old woman), as keepers of several sins:

Regardons oultre un petit : en quel maniere puet estre vallable et a bonne fin ce que tant et si excessivement, impettueusement et tres nonveritablement il accuse, blame et diffame femmes de pluseurs tres grans vices et leurs meurs temoingne estre plains de toute perversité.

'Furthermore, let us consider a little bit: what can be of value and of good quality when he excessively, impetuously and most untruthfully blames and accuses women of several serious vices and he claims their behaviour is full of perversion.'

According to her, this was not representative of the allegorical character of the Roman de la Rose but was rather the author’s opinion.

During the quarrel several letters were exchanged between Jean de Montreuil, Christine de Pizan, Pierre Col and Jean Gerson and others including a high-ranking prelate and a poet. Pizan was supported by Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris. The debate was an epistolary exercise within a changing literary movement: more than a simple quarrel, it was a literary controversy. On one side, there were the supporters of morality and of courtly love, including Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson. On the other, there were the first French humanists such as Jean de Montreuil, promoting a new vernacular poetry. In the background, there was a literary movement for the codification of courtly literature initiated by the Burgundians under the patronage of Charles VI. Known as the Cour Amoureuse (1400), this movement took the form of a gathering of ecclesiastics, nobles and bourgeois at court, who advocated ‘joieuse recreacion et amoureuse conversation’ (‘happy recreation and lovely conversation’) with poetical plays and courtly songs.

Garden of pleasure, from the Roman de la Rose, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

The participants took this literary debate very seriously. In 1402, Christine de Pizan gathered together all the letters involved in the debate and submitted them to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Guillaume de Tignonville (Provost of Paris) for arbitration under the title, Epistres sur le Roman de la Rose. In the same year, she wrote the Dit de la Rose, a poem of 650 lines dedicated to Charles VI’s brother, Louis d’Orléans, duke of Orléans. The allegorical character Loyauté, under the tutelage of Amour, founds the movement the Ordre de la Rose (which was based on the Cour Amoureuse of Charles VI). This Ordre de la Rose aims to defend women against slander. However, the Ordre de la Rose was designed as a circle where women played a central role, as opposed to the Cour Amoureuse which had the same purpose, to honour women, but was almost exclusively composed of men.

The quarrel finally came to an end with a new work by Christine de Pizan, La cité des Dames (1403-1404), which told the stories of virtuous women in the Bible and in French history. In addition to this, Jean Gerson produced several sermons on deadly sin and especially lust, which he used to condemn the Roman de la Rose.

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, from
Harley MS 4431, f. 3r.

The quarrel was relatively short-lived, lasting only a few years; however, it had a major impact on literature and manuscript production. Not only did it inspire one of the most enduring works of medieval literature—the Cité des Dames – it also impacted manuscript production. Later, Christine de Pizan solicited the help of the Queen once again, this time for a highly illuminated book that Christine supervised (now Harley MS 4431) which is mainly a compilation of her own works. She presented this manuscript to Isabeau of Bavaria in 1414. Ironically, the above controversy drew attention to the second part of the Roman de la Rose, the part by Jean de Meun. It had been generally neglected by illuminators but from that period onwards it was illuminated more frequently.

Laure Miolo



25 July 2016

Star Item: An Anglo-Saxon Sketch of the Solar System

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When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson


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