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115 posts categorized "Latin"

18 October 2014

The Death of King John

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King John of England (1199–1216), of Magna Carta fame, was by all accounts a particularly unpleasant ruler. The charges levelled against him, many of them during his own lifetime, included the murder of his nephew, the sexual predation of the wives and daughters of his nobles, and the starving to death of the wife and children of one of his former companions. So unpopular was John that his barons finally rose up in rebellion against his arbitrary rule, and against the severe punishments often inflicted upon them, until they eventually forced the king to grant them the Charter of Liberties, also known as Magna Carta, at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Few can have lamented King John's eventual demise at Newark Castle — most probably following an attack of dysentery —in October 1216. Writing some forty years later, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), monk and historian of St Albans Abbey, delivered the ultimate condemnation: 'Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John'.

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King John in happier times, hunting on horseback according to this illustration in a 14th-century manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r).

Today may, or may not, be the anniversary of King John's death. The medieval chroniclers could not reach consensus on the exact date that John died. Matthew Paris and his St Albans' predecessor, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), plumped for 17 October. Ralph (d. 1226), abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall (Essex), stated instead that King John had succumbed to his illness on 18 October. A number of monastic chroniclers, writing at Tewkesbury, Winchester, Worcester and elsewhere, favoured 19 October as the day in question. Of these various witnesses, we should perhaps give greatest credence to the anonymous chroniclers writing at Waverley Abbey (Surrey) and Southwark Priory (Surrey), both of whom asserted that the death of King John took place on 19 October. The manuscripts of these two chronicles (Waverley, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A XVI; Southwark, British Library Cotton MS Faustina A VIII) were both being written in the year 1216, as evidenced by their numerous changes of scribe at this period. The same is also true, however, of Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum (the autograph manuscript of which is British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D X). Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, in contrast, were writing many years after the events being described, and so their testimony — albeit possibly derived from an authentic St Albans tradition — is more open to question.

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Is this how King John met his fate? As early as the 13th century, it was alleged that he had been poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (Lincolnshire), seen here offering him a poisoned chalice (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v).

Earlier in his reign, King John had determined that he should be buried at the Cistercian abbey he had founded at Beaulieu (Hampshire). In October 1216, Beaulieu lay in that part of England which was held by the rebel barons; and so John asked instead that he be buried at Worcester Cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen. In fact, the tomb was opened in 1797, in order to confirm whether it did contain John's body, and certain of the remains removed, which are also on view in Worcester. Mr Sandford, a local surgeon, inspected the skeleton, and reported that King John stood 5 ft 6½ in. (approximately 1.69 m) tall. Unlike one of his successors, Richard III, John was clearly not buried under a carpark.

Next February, the four surviving manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta will be brought together at the British Library for the first time in 800 years. A ballot is currently being held to give 1,215 lucky winners the chance to see all four manuscripts side-by-side. The ballot closes on 31 October: don't forget to enter for your chance to take part in this moment of history! If you do miss out, you'll still be able to see the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at our own major exhibition later in 2015: tickets are already on sale. And if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, take the chance to visit our new Learning webpages, which will be updated with more information next year.

Strangely enough, we doubt that King John would have been particularly amused by the modern-day celebrations planned for Magna Carta in 2015. Less than ten weeks after that document had been granted in June 1215, Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III, at John's request, declaring it to be 'shameful and demeaning, illegal and unjust, and null and void of all validity for ever'. Just over a year later, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of John's son, King Henry III (1216–1272), and the rest is history. King John never did get the last laugh.

16 October 2014

Dedicated to You

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What do you get the person who has everything?  A manuscript book of poetry written in his or her honour, naturally!  

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Original binding of gold-tooled parchment with the royal coat of arms and initials ‘E R’ (‘Elizabeth Regina’), from a manuscript of complimentary verses to Elizabeth I, England (Eton), 1563,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, front cover 

A lesser known part of the Royal collection is a set of manuscripts of complimentary verses that were presented to royalty and aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.  They are mostly catalogued under the ‘Royal MS 12 A’ range.  Eleven of these, containing verses or epigrams in Greek, have been digitised as part of our ongoing Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project (a list of these is provided below).  They are now available online, allowing us to take a closer look at these intriguing gifts. 

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Title page with coloured border featuring Tudor roses and coats of arms,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 1r 

The focus of today’s blogpost is upon the earliest dated manuscript of this group: Royal MS 12 A XXX, presented to Elizabeth I when she travelled to Windsor in 1563.  The volume opens with a hand-drawn and coloured title page, the border of which contains Tudor roses and the coats of arms both of Elizabeth and Eton College. 

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Poems in Latin by Giles Fletcher, with an acrostic,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 28v 

The Latin verses were composed by pupils of Eton College.  The most frequent contributor to the volume, with eleven poems, was ‘Fletcher’.  Giles Fletcher (bap. 1546, d. 1611) later served as one of Elizabeth’s diplomats, undertaking a perilous embassy to the court of Tsar Feodor I at Moscow between June 1588 and July/August 1589.  Like several of his fellow-pupils, Fletcher employed elaborate acrostics to encode Elizabeth’s name or encomia into his poems: the first and last letters of each line in the above poem read ‘Vivente te vivimus, te remota moriemur’ (‘We live while you live, we will die when you leave’). 

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Poems in Latin by ‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’, with acrostics,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 56v 

‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’ (Samuel Flemming, later prebendary of Southwell) used the same device to bid their monarch ‘Farewell [and] prosper’ (‘Valeto, vivito’ and ‘Vive, Vale’).  ‘Hunt’ went one step further, using his acrostic to declare ‘Vestra secundet Christus Iesus’ (‘May Jesus Christ favour your endeavours’) (ff. 33r-33v). 

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Coat of arms of Eton College, with Latin verse,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 72r

What spurred the composition of such a book?  William Malim (b. 1533, d. 1594), Headmaster of Eton College, prefaced the poems with a dedicatory Greek quatrain.  Perhaps he hoped his and his pupils’ praise would secure the patronage and favour of the new monarch (he may have been involved in producing a similar book – now Royal MS 12 A LXVII – when he became High Master of St Paul’s school ten years later).  The coat of arms of both of Elizabeth and the College were painted in at the end of the volume, and lavishly embellished with silver leaf (now oxidised into a dull grey), with verses on both, providing a reminder of the source of the gift. 

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Opening of a prayer in Latin prose against the plague,
Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 62r 

Yet there was a serious side to all this flattery.  Elizabeth’s departure from London had been prompted by an outbreak of the plague in the city.  Only five years on the throne, and without either husband or heir, the Queen’s position and the stability of the nation as a whole seemed precarious.  After the political and religious upheavals of previous reigns, such anxieties were sharply felt by Elizabeth’s subjects.  After all the plaudits and praise, the elaborate exercises in Latin composition and inventive word-play, a prayer in Latin prose follows: ‘In order that the contagion of the ravaging plague may be diverted as long as possible from our most fair and noble Queen...’ 

- James Freeman

07 October 2014

Magna Carta: Be Part of History

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Would you like to be part of history? Next February, the four original Magna Carta manuscripts, granted by King John of England in 1215, will be united for the very first time at the British Library in London. Today, we're announcing the launch of a ballot, giving 1,215 winners the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see those four documents side-by-side.

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The British Library in London, home to two of the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John as a practical solution to a political crisis, Magna Carta has subsequently become venerated as an international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power, and as a guarantor of individual liberties. Magna Carta has influenced the drafters of many constitutional documents (including the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and three of its clauses remain on the English statute book, including the most famous, which states that:

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.'

Once King John had agreed to the terms of Magna Carta in June 1215, copies were drawn up for distribution throughout England, most probably to be sent to the bishops for safe-keeping. Four of these original documents still survive, two of which are kept at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral.

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Salisbury Cathedral, home of one of the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. To kick-start that year of international celebrations, the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral are inviting 1,215 people to see these four Magna Carta manuscripts together for the very first time, for one day only (Tuesday, 3 February 2015).This will be part of a special event at the British Library, sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm, and including a separate opportunity for academics working on the Magna Carta Project (sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) to study the manuscripts in close detail.

So here's what you need to know. The ballot to win tickets to this event goes live today. It's free to enter, and the ballot will remain open until 31 October, after which the winners will be selected at random. In addition to being given this once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the four Magna Carta manuscripts in one place, the winners will be given a special introduction to the history and legacy of Magna Carta from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones. They will also each receive a special edition Magna Carta gift bag containing free passes to each of the upcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, plus a Certificate of Attendance, inscribed with the winner’s name and sealed in wax with a special stamp created to mark the day.

Following the unification, the four Magna Carta manuscripts will return to their home institutions to be displayed as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations. The British Library's own exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, runs from 13 March to 1 September 2015, and separate exhibitions will be held at Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals.

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Lincoln Cathedral, home of another of the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

If you want to learn more about the background to Magna Carta, you can now also visit the British Library's new Magna Carta webpages.

Good luck to everyone who enters the ballot. We look forward to meeting the lucky winners on 3 February, and if you're not lucky this time round, we'd be delighted to see you at our respective Magna Carta exhibitions in 2015.

01 October 2014

A Calendar Page for October 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

While the summer growing season may be over, the agricultural labours are by no means at and end, as these calendar pages for the month of October display.  On the opening folio is a roundel miniature of a man scattering grain in a plowed field.  Behind him are some turreted buildings and a bridge, while above, some hopeful birds are circling.   On the facing folio is a small painting of an ominous-looking scorpion, for the zodiac sign Scorpio.  Below, a tired man is heading home from his labours in the field, carrying a bag on his shoulders.  His dog is bounding before him, and swans can be seen swimming in the river beside.

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Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man sowing grain, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10v

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Calendar page for October, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home after his work is done, with the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11r

- Sarah J Biggs

21 September 2014

Virgil's Countryside

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On September 21, 19 BC, Publius Vergilius Maro died of a fever at Brundisium. Though Virgil's birthday, on the Ides of October, is more traditionally the day on which the poet is remembered, we at Medieval Manuscripts can never pass up the opportunity to talk about the man from Mantua.

The finest and most influential of all the Latin poets, it should come as no surprise that his works are well represented in the collections of the British Library. The Libarry's holdings include some eighty-three manuscripts and a single papyrus (Papyrus 2723) – not to mention the many manuscripts containing works about Virgil or translations of his verse.

With such a large collection to choose from, there is a limit to what we can reasonably cover in a single blog post! Many of the Library’s manuscripts of the Eclogues (a collection of pastoral poems) and the Georgics (a didactic poem on farming) are adorned with depictions of country life. An excellent example is Burney 272, created in Germany or Austria c 1473. It opens with a very fine pair of miniatures of Virgil (in the historiated initial ‘T’) and a shepherd (Tityrus?) in the border, at the beginning of the first Eclogue:

Burney MS 272, f 4 detail

Opening of Virgil's Eclogues, detail of Burney MS 272, f 4r.

In this manuscript, the illuminator seems particularly to have been taken by the opportunity to adorn the Georgics: here is an image of a man picking grapes, accompanying the Second Georgic:

Burney 272 f 26 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 26r.

And here is a very modern-looking beehive, on f 43v, accompanying the Fourth Georgic:

Burney MS 272, f  43 detail

Detail of Burney MS 272, f 43v.

Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the Eclogues tends to get a lot of attention. Here is an ink drawing from the mid-14th century of two shepherds, at the beginning of the First Eclogue: the ink has faded so that it is rather difficult to make thm out:

Harley MS 3754, f 1r detail

Detail of Harley MS 3754, f 1r.

Compare this to the majestic ‘King’s Virgil’, Kings MS 24, created in Rome between 1483 and 1485:

Kings MS 24, f 1r

Kings MS 24, f 1r.

Once again, the bee-keeping section of the Georgics is the occasion for a fine illumination:

Kings MS 24, f 47v detail

Detail of Kings MS 24, f 47v.

Even initials provide an opportunity for some thematic illumination: in this early 15th-century Italian manuscript, the opening Q of the Georgics contains a man entangled in some vines:

Harley MS 3963, f 16v detail

Detail of Harley MS 3963, f 16v.

We end with another portrait of the author, hidden in another Q at the beginning of the Georgics:

Sloane MS 2510, f 2r detail

Detail of Sloane MS 2510, f 2r.

- Cillian O'Hogan

18 September 2014

Languages in Medieval Britain

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We are proud to announce that the Catholicon Anglicum is now being exhibited in our Treasures Gallery. The British Library acquired the manuscript, the only complete copy of the text in existence, in February this year, for £92,500, following the temporary deferral of an export licence. It had lain hidden for over a century in the Monson family collection in Lincolnshire. 

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Opening of the section for words beginning with M, from the ‘Catholicon Anglicum’, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 102v
 

Since its arrival at the British Library, it has been catalogued in detail (along with other late medieval dictionaries in our collection), photographed in full and uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, and now forms the centrepiece of a display of manuscripts about the variety of languages that were spoken and written in medieval Britain. This is your chance to see this rare and precious manuscript face-to-face!

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End of the section for words beginning with
Ȝ, and the compiler’s epilogue, Add MS 89074, f. 185v 

The Catholicon was the first such dictionary to have all of its entries arranged in alphabetical order. The positioning of vernacular words first, with Latin equivalents following, shows that it was intended to be used for Latin composition not translation. It would have been of particular utility in the grammar schools that were being founded in large numbers during the 15th century. 

Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
Alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words, with glosses in Latin and Old English, England (?Worcester), 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 3376, f. 1v
 

An early predecessor of the Catholicon is the first exhibit in the display: an alphabetical glossary of rare Latin words that was made in the 10th or 11th centuries, perhaps in Worcester. It may have been made for someone familiar with only basic Latin vocabulary, or as an aid to developing a more advanced command of the language. The headwords are glossed with more simplistic Latin equivalents or, sometimes, Old English words. 

Following the Norman Conquest, Old English was supplanted by French as the language of the ruling elites. The next item on display in the Treasures Gallery is a 14th-century copy of a treatise written by Walter of Bibbesworth a century earlier, the Tretize de Langage. It was designed to be used by a mother to teach her two young children, and uses descriptions of everyday life and work, rhymes and riddles – even animal sounds – both to entertain and educate. 

Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
Descriptions of diseases and their symptoms, treatments and cures, from the ‘Lilium medicinae’, Ireland (County Clare), 1482, Egerton MS 89, f. 93v
 

The other two exhibits showcase languages that were spoken elsewhere in the British Isles. The Lilium medicinae, a guide to the treatment of illnesses, was written in 1303 by Bernard de Gordon, a famous physician at the University of Montpellier in France. Bernard was one of the medical authorities named by the Doctor of Physick in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This Irish translation of the Lilium was written by the scribe Domhnall Albanach Ó Troighthigh of County Clare in 1482. The Latin headings name various illnesses; the subheadings ‘Signa’, ‘Curacio’ and ‘Clarificacio’ describe their symptoms, treatment and cure. 

Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
Tinted woodcut of the Flagellation of Christ at the beginning of a poem by Walter Kennedy, from a collection of Scottish poetry, ?Scotland, 1st half of the 16th century, Arundel MS 285, ff. 5v-6r
 

A collection of Scottish poetry illustrates the cross-over between manuscript and print in the early 16th century. It contains seventeen 15th-century printed woodcuts, which have been pasted into reserved spaces in the book, often at the beginning of the texts. The source of the woodcuts is not known. They may have been recycled from a previous book, or gathered from a selection of devotional handbills or flyleaves. A poem about the Passion of Christ by Walter Kennedy begins, appropriately, with a scene of the Flagellation of Christ, an elaborate rubric in red ink and the opening words in an imposing display script. 

Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
A page from ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’, Wales (?Neath), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4353, f. 12r
 

There were, of course, other languages spoken in medieval Britain besides these. The British Library holds manuscripts of medieval Welsh, such as this legal text known as ‘The Book of Cyfnerth’. It contains the Gwentian code of Welsh law – a witness to a legal system distinct from that of England – and was written in south-west Wales, perhaps in Neath, early in the 14th century. The scribe who made this book was also responsible for another in the British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIV, which also contains Welsh laws and a copy of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. 

Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
Bas-de-page scene of Christ carrying the Cross, from a manuscript of a Passion poem in Cornish, England (Cornwall), 15th century, Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
 

Harley MS 1782 further illustrates the flowering of regional forms of Christianity during the medieval period that we saw in the Scottish poetry book.  This manuscript is a 15th-century copy of a poem about Christ’s passion written in Cornish.  The text is illustrated with a series of scenes from the Passion – here, Christ carrying the Cross – akin to those that marked the Stations of the Cross in medieval churches. 

- James Freeman

09 September 2014

The 2014 Panizzi Lectures - The Giant Bibles of Twelfth-Century England

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Why – and how – were very large, elaborately decorated, multi-volume bibles made during the twelfth-century in England?  We are very excited that Dr Christopher de Hamel will be coming to the British Library to consider these and many other questions in the 2014 Panizzi Lectures.  The lectures will take place in the Conference Centre on Monday 27th and Thursday 30th October and Monday 3rd November, 6.15pm-7.30pm.  Entry is free, but the event is not ticketed, and seats will be allocated on a first come, first served basis – so keep the dates free and get here early!

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In each lecture, Dr de Hamel will be taking a closer look at three outstanding examples of this kind of manuscript – the Bury Bible, the Winchester Bible and the Lambeth Bible – using evidence of their decoration, codicology and provenance to explore why these large and incredibly expensive books came into and fell out of fashion within a single century.  Further details about the lectures may be found on the British Library website.

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An inhabited initial ‘P’ at the beginning of Judges, from the Rochester Bible, England (Rochester), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 27v

The British Library possesses several examples of giant twelfth-century bibles.  Here are a few to whet your appetite for the forthcoming lectures.  An outstanding example from England is the Rochester Bible. 

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Detail of a historiated initial ‘E’ showing Moses giving the book of the law to Joshua, at the beginning of Joshua, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v

It is remarkable for containing the earliest English Romanesque examples of historiated initials (large letters that incorporate narrative scenes relating to the text), including this rather odd example where the scene has been orientated sideways in order to be accommodated within the letter E.  The manuscript was almost certainly made for Rochester Cathedral during the second quarter of the twelfth century, and it matches the description of a five-volume Bible given in a catalogue of Rochester’s books made in 1202.  One other volume is known to have survived and is now Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, MS W.18.

Harley MS 4772, f. 5r
Large historiated initial ‘I’ showing scenes from Creation, from the Montpellier Bible, S. France (Languedoc), 1st quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 4772, f. 5r

Our collections also incorporate giant bibles from around Europe; clearly, this was not a phenomenon confined to England.  The two-volume Montpellier Bible (Harley MS 4772 and Harley MS 4773) is an early example, made during the first quarter of the twelfth century in southern France.  Its medieval provenance is unknown, but the manuscript is so named because it was given to the Capuchin monastery at Montpellier in 1621, by François Ranchin (b. 1564, d. 1641), the chancellor of the university there. 

Harley MS 2799, f. 185v
Detail of a historiated initial ‘I’ showing St John the Evangelist, from the Arnstein Bible, W. Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 185v
 

An example from Germany comes in the form of the Arnstein Bible, made for the monastery of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in two volumes, now Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799.  It was copied by a scribe named Lunandus, probably around 1172. 

Harley MS 2799, f. 243r
Pen drawings of the ‘monstrous races’, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

As well as the ornate, curling, foliate and zoomorphic initials typical of Romanesque illumination, the manuscript also contains some interesting additions on the endleaves, such as maps and diagrams, as well as sketches of ‘monstrous races’ thought at the time to live in faraway lands.

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Detail of a miniature in two registers showing the Crucifixion and an animal sacrifice, from the Floreffe Bible, Belgium (Floreffe), c. 1170, Add MS 17738, f. 187r

The Floreffe Bible was made around the same time, for the Premonstratensian monastery of Floreffe, near Namur in modern-day Belgium.  In the second part of this two-volume manuscript (Add MS 17737 and Add MS 17738), each of the Gospels is preceded by a miniature in two registers that draws allegorical comparisons between events in the Old and New Testaments.

We hope these examples have inspired you to join us for the Panizzi Lectures 2014

- James Freeman

02 September 2014

Dictionaries: More Than Mere Words

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Back in March this year, we announced that we had saved an important fifteenth-century manuscript from export: the only complete copy of the Catholicon Anglicum, one of the earliest Middle English-Latin dictionaries.  Inspired by this fascinating linguistic and lexicographical source, in the intervening months we have been cataloguing other late medieval dictionaries in our collection. 

Add MS 22556, f. 47r
Entries beginning with the letter ‘G’, from the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England (Norfolk), 15th century, Add MS 22556
, f. 47r 

The Promptorium parvulorum (‘The Students’ Storehouse’), like the Catholicon, had its Middle English entries arranged alphabetically, but in two sections: 'nomina' (nouns, but also adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections) coming first, followed by 'verba' (verbs).  The British Library has four copies of this text in the collection: Add MS 22556, Harley MS 221, Harley MS 2274 (a fragment) and Add MS 37789

Add MS 37789, f. 1r
The prologue (‘preambulum’) to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England (Norfolk), late 15th century, Add MS 37789, f. 1r

The prologue to the Promptorium tells us that its compiler lived as a Dominican friar in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1440.  Two of our copies – Add MS 22556 and Add MS 37789 – can be localised to Norfolk on the basis of linguistic evidence.  The compiler described himself as a recluse, and perhaps lived in an anchorage attached to the order’s house.  Although his name is unknown, the Promptorium is commonly assigned to ‘Geoffrey the Grammarian’ on the basis of an annotation in a printed edition of 1499.    

Add MS 37789, f. 84r
The explicit to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’ and incipit to the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, with scribal colophon of John Broke, Add MS 37789, f. 84r
 

In the sixteenth century, John Bale attributed the authorship of another late medieval dictionary to Geoffrey: the Medulla grammaticae.  The two texts had a close relationship in both manuscript and print.  In Add MS 37789, they are bound together within the same manuscript.  The title ‘Medulla grammaticae’ is sometimes attached as an alternative in early printed editions of the Promptorium parvulorum.  However, there is ultimately no evidence to support Bale’s attribution, which has proven more confusing than helpful to scholars. 

Harley MS 2257, f. 65r
The end of the list of entries beginning with ‘H’ and beginning of the list of entries beginning with ‘I’, with a pen-flourished initial, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 2257, f. 65r
 

The Medulla grammaticae enjoyed a broader circulation than either the Catholicon or the Promptorium.  As its name suggests – Medulla grammaticae means ‘The Core of Grammar’ – its purpose was to aid the understanding of Latin grammar rather than composition, so logically the entries are arranged Latin-Middle English.  We have published detailed catalogue descriptions for each of our Medulla manuscripts, as follows: Add MS 24640, Add MS 33534, Add MS 37789, Add MS 62080, Harley MS 1000, Harley MS 1738, Harley MS 2181, Harley MS 2257, and Harley MS 2270

Add MS 62080, f. 1vb
Front endleaf (the former pastedown) bearing ownership inscriptions (Edward Lyster, Thomas Gayner), with pink-stained leather covering of the medieval binding visible at the edges, from the Medulla grammaticae, England (?Nottingham), Add MS 62080, f. 1v
 

The manuscripts of these dictionaries are functional, unelaborate objects – written for the most part in cursive scripts, usually on paper, with decoration rarely extending beyond plain coloured initials – but they are intriguing nonetheless.  Add MS 62080 (a Medulla), which retains its medieval binding, appears to have passed through several hands in the Nottingham area.

Add MS 62080, f. 2r
Detail of the opening of the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, with a grotesque figure chewing on the cadels of the intertwined letters ‘H’ and ‘A’, Add MS 62080, f. 2r
 

This copy of the Medulla also has some amusing grotesques in its initials. 

Harley MS 2274, f. 61v
Prognostication calendar relating to ‘metalles, quoynes and apparel and other necessaries’, from a composite miscellany containing a fragment of the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England, 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 2274, f. 61v
 

The fragment of the Promptorium at the end of Harley MS 2274 is accompanied by an array of liturgical, devotional, medical and prognostication texts: including a curious zodiac calendar that advised when would be a good or bad time to ‘begynne all fyry workis’ (i.e. involving furnaces), ‘to lende mony to have it a gayne’, ‘to bye woll or woolyn clothe’, or ‘to put on nwe apparel’. 

Harley MS 221, f. 206rb
Detail of a list of ‘holsome herbes for the potte in tempore pestilenciali’, ‘a soverayne medicynne for the swetyng sekenesse’ from Master Walter Hyllum, and another ‘for the frenche pockis’, from an endleaf to the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’, England, 15th century, Harley MS 221, f. 206r
 

Harley MS 221 (a Promptorium) was one of the manuscripts acquired by Robert Harley from Sir Symonds d’Ewes on 4th October 1705, in the first of several ‘block purchases’ from other manuscript collectors.  It is one of the few dictionary manuscripts on parchment, and is written in a fine Textura script.  The last leaf contains a number of medical recipes for dealing with pestilence, sweating sickness and ‘the french pocks’ (i.e. syphilis). 

Harley MS 1738, f. 81v
Detail of a scribal colophon, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, late 15th century, Harley MS 1738, f. 81v
 

Some evidence of the production and early provenance of Harley MS 1738 (a Medulla) survives.  It may have been written by a scribe called William Harper, who wrote his name and the following verse upside-down at the bottom of the last page: ‘Si mean penna valet, melior mea littera fiet’ (‘If my pen is strong, my letter will be better’) (f. 81v).  

Harley MS 1738, f. 1r
Detail of an inscription relating to the ordering of paper, Harley MS 1738, f. 1r
 

It seems that at same point in the late fifteenth century someone wished to make a copy of this manuscript, and asked their brother Thomas to acquire the materials for them to do so: ‘Thomas brother I pray yow of halgentylnesse that yow wyl do the labor for to by me ii bokys in lyn papir for wrytyng [...] ad verssus the pralaying bokys and wel that ys callyd Medulla gramatice’ (f. 1r).  It is of particular interest to our study of book production that it was possible in the fifteenth century to purchase not just plain paper, but quires that had been already ruled and lined for writing.

Add MS 33534, f. 1r
Detail of an inscription relating to the binding of the manuscript, from the ‘Medulla grammaticae’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 33534, f. 1r
 

A similar instruction survives in another Medulla manuscript: Add MS 33534.  This is another copy with a medieval binding, probably of the mid-fifteenth century, that once featured straps and labels on the exterior.  An inscription on f. 1r reads: ‘Brothur William Barkere I pray youe lett thys booke be bound at the utmost by myddyll Lent and my brother shall pay for the byndyng’.  The wording appears to indicate that William Barker was a monk, who perhaps was being given the book by a layman, whose brother in turn would foot the bill for its binding.

Add MS 62080, f. 31vc
Detail of the head of a woman within a pen-flourished initial ‘C’, Add MS 62080, f. 31v
 

These dictionaries are an important reminder that Latin learning was not confined the cloister, cathedral or church.  Laymen too required a functional command of the language in order to conduct business, to read and understand legal documents such as charters and wills.  There is growing evidence as well – that the Catholicon Anglicum, Promptorium parvulorum and Medulla grammaticae together reinforce – that to understand lay reading habits we must go beyond vernacular texts.  The laity did not content themselves with reading in the vernacular, but sought out and consumed popular and broadly circulating historical, literary, and religious texts in Latin for their own entertainment and edification.

- James Freeman