THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

174 posts categorized "Latin"

19 July 2016

Alexander Neckam’s Collections of Prometheus

Add comment Comments (2)

You shouldn’t have pressed that button. As the time machine sputters to life, your lab disappears, to be replaced with a forest and stone buildings. A group of monks take you in, and you regain a sense of calmness as you listen to them sing the daily office in the chapel. But what was that word that just came up? Zizania? You reach for your phone, only to remember that the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources won’t be online for centuries to come. You absolutely need to know what that word means. How will you find out?

Opening of Corrogationes Promethei in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 2r, late 13th to early 14th century.

Opening of Corrogationes Promethei in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 2r, late 13th to early 14th century.

You might turn to Alexander Neckam’s Collections of Prometheus (Corrogationes Promethei), a guide to reading difficult sections of the Bible written around the year 1200. Seven copies of Collections are in the British Library, and two of them can be browsed in full on Digitised Manuscripts: Harley MS 6 and Harley MS 1687. It is divided into two ‘books’. This does not mean that it was physically divided into two physically separate volumes: ancient writers used this term to divide a work into large sections, which in turn could be split into chapters (a tradition that continues to this day, as in The Lord of the Rings). The first section is a compilation of pointers from ancient grammarians such as Priscian, providing a refresher in Latin when you might have forgotten its subtleties. The second part works through the entire Bible in order, giving quotations of unusual passages with a running commentary on their correct interpretation, and notes on typical errors in the hand-copied Bibles of the day.

A fifteenth-century depiction of the fifth-century grammarian Priscian, Burney MS 235, f. 4r.

A 15th-century depiction of the 5th-century grammarian Priscian, Burney MS 235, f. 4r.

This might today seem a rather odd approach for a reference book. We often take the index for granted, but at this time it was still a nascent invention. Works such as Isidore of Sevile’s Etymologies were organized by subject, and required familiarity; readers did not expect to get answers from their books in a matter of seconds. It was not for almost a century that some copies of Alexander’s Collections were rewritten in alphabetical order.

The book was widely loved. There are 38 known manuscripts that survive, and records of another 46 – not quite a blockbuster in medieval terms, but very respectable. After the author’s death, the prior of Malmesbury, known only by the initial ‘S.’, wrote to Walter de Melida, formerly Alexander’s clerk at Cirencester Abbey. One of two copies of the unpublished letter is now in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 57r–v (the other is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Latin 11867, f. 240v). He goes into raptures about the book:

Hence, as though entering the porch of Solomon, while I admire the scholastic scenes once handed down – as if through the pleasant greens of my forgotten youth – I energetically admire the scents of flowers which I had thought to have withered in such a man. But the happy storeroom of the memory is to be praised that embraces so many and so great and so different treasures of storehouses, and succeeds in protecting them without decay. This householder should well be called good and rich, who brings forth from new and old things from his treasury, and he should doubtless be called the seat of wisdom; occurrence and fulfilment direct his soul with experience. This is the faithful spouse who keeps every new and old fruit for his beloved, so that he can say with restrained cheerfulness, as if on behalf of his family: ‘We have ripe apples, tender chestnuts, and plenty of pressed cheeses.’ [Virgil, Eclogues 1.80–81]

In spite of the enthusiasm for Alexander’s work, there was immediate confusion about the meaning of the title Corrogationes Promethei. What did Prometheus have to do with grammar? A letter survives with a 13th-century copy of the work glossing the title as ‘collections of a wise or prudent man’ (Évreux, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Latin 72, f. 1v). The most convincing theory is that the title refers to Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.9, the classic textbook on the art of rhetoric. In a quotation that Priscian popularized, it compares Prometheus to a ‘ridiculous master’. As was typical for Alexander Neckam, the title was meant to be self-deprecating and slightly humorous.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

14 July 2016

Manuscript the Tube

Add comment

Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk. 

It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.

Elephant and castle

Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.

 Royal 16 F II f73
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and  'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Tower of London Underground Ralf Roletschek
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010. 

Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance. 

Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles. 

 

A Run-Down of Our Favourites

Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r

Blackfriars

Some punned on the names of Tube stations, like Acton Town from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed with an image from the Bodleian Library @bodleianlibs MS Auct F 2 13

Acton Town

Harrow on the Hill  station proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Adam @pseudomonas, with an image from our 'Taymouth Hours', ?London, c. 1325-50, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 68v

Harrow on the hill, YT

Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v

  Harrow on the hill

Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v

 

Baker's treat

@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f.  34 v

  Heathrow

Richard Fitch @tudorcook was in playful mood with an image of Arsenal from @MorganLibrary's late 14th-century copy of Jacques de Longuyon's Vows of the Peacock, in MS G 24, f. 25v

 

Arsenal

And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r

Hatch end

 

 Commonplace Berk @stambuch was typically witty in his suggestion for Kilburn from the Bodleian Library's Douce MS 332. You can see his other suggestion here (caution advised). 

Kilburn

Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.

  London bridge

 

We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.

 
Seven sisters

 Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.

 High barnet

Rayners Lane, from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed was a very British suggestion, with a detail of Croesus from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1450-60, Harley MS 1766, f. 133r

H 1766 f133r

And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497. 

Amersham

Elephant and Castle  got a second outing from @SophieVHarwood with a detail of the death of Codrus, from Speculum humanae salvationis, England (London), c. 1485-1509, Harley MS 2838

H 2838 f27

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy sent us this lovely angel for, um, Angel from the 'Taymouth Hours', our Yates Thompson MS 13

  Angel

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v 

Tw Add 10292 f200v

@DollyJorgensen was on fine form, suggesting Hammersmith with detail of a blacksmith, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 68   

H 6563 f68v

I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound. 

Oval

Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v

H 4379 f19v

Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here

Burnt oak

 Which are your favourite entries from #manuscriptthetube? We'd love to hear your suggestions: please tweet us @BLMedieval or leave a comment below this blogpost.

 ~@marywellesley

 

Related

 

Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras,  by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v


Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v

05 July 2016

Masons and Manuscripts

Add comment

What do the masons who built medieval cathedrals, the philosopher Voltaire and the artist Marc Chagall have in common? Give yourself a pat on the back if you knew that they are all associated with freemasonry. The history of freemasonry is the subject of a major exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, open until 24 July 2016, to which the British Library has loaned two medieval manuscripts.

Egerton_ms_1894_f005v
The tower of Babel being built by masons, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England, c. 1350-1375, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v

Freemasonry had its origins in the building of medieval cathedrals. In the late Middle Ages, masons gathered in guilds or lodges regulated by statutes. Each new mason had to undergo an apprenticeship of seven years and to swear an oath before they could receive the status of mason. At around the same time, a legend was created to enhance the status and importance of masons’ work. The oldest versions of this legend are dated to the end of the 14th century and the early 15th century, and they survive in two British Library manuscripts (Royal MS 17 A I and Additional MS 23198). They contain a verse history of masonry and of the regulations of the craft of masonry, ending with a prayer. These poems give a mythical account of the origins of mason’s craft: they claim that the secrets of practical geometry and masonry were created with the world and were the foundation of all knowledge, and that masonry was established in England during the reign of King Athelstan (d. 939).

Royal 15 E II   f. 265
Detail of a mason and a carpenter, from Livre des proprietez des choses, Low Countries (Bruges), 1482, Royal MS 15 E II, f. 265r

In the 17th century, individuals who did not have links with masonry were admitted to lodges, first in Scotland and afterwards in England. The term ‘lodge’ designated the hut of masons and was extended to the corporation of masons. Freemasonry as we know it today originated in England in the 18th century, when some gentlemen masons – often members of the Royal Society or other learned men -- gathered at the ‘Goose and Gridiron’ tavern in St Paul’s churchyard, before uniting four London lodges into one in 1717. Freemason lodges played a key role in the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas because of the close links between members of the Royal Society and members of the Great Lodge of England.

Royal_ms_17_a_i_f001r
A page from one of the earliest masonic treatises, Constituciones artis gemetrie secundum Euclyde, England, 15th century, Royal MS 17 A I, f. 1r

In 1725, English freemasons founded the first French lodge in the neighbourhood of St-Germain in Paris. The political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) was one of the first Frenchmen to become an ‘officer’, after having been initiated into freemasonry in an English lodge at Westminster in 1730. Despite some criticism, freemasonry flourished in France, and it counted among its members Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803), the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses, and the expressionist artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

The exhibition currently being staged in Paris aims to bring a new perspective to the origins and history of freemasonry. We are delighted that the British Library is a prominent lender to La Franc-Maçonnerie, and we hope that visitors to the exhibition enjoy seeing our manuscripts.

~Laure Miolo

01 July 2016

A Calendar Page for July 2016

Add comment Comments (0)

For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Add_ms_18850_f007r
Calendar page for July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July. 

Add_ms_18850_f007r_detail1
Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat.  Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task.  Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.

Add_ms_18850_f007r_detail2
Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar.  This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named.  The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised. 

Add_ms_18850_f007v
Calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July.  At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar.  He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest.  Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’

Add_ms_18850_f007v_detail1
Add_ms_18850_f007v_detail2
Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

-   Sarah J Biggs

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

Add comment

The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

COTCLEC VIII
Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

Royal_ms_18_e_i_f165v
Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

Add_ms_11695_f143r
The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

Add_ms_19896_f008v Add_ms_19896_f009r

Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f023v Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f024r

The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

Add_ms_24199_f010r
Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

Tweet add_ms_24199_f012r
Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

Add_ms_24199_f004v
Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

01 June 2016

A Calendar Page for June 2016

Add comment Comments (0)

For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Add_ms_18850_f006r
Calendar page for June from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

More beautiful summer scenes greet us in the folios for June from the Bedford Hours. 

Add_ms_18850_f006r_detail1
Detail of miniatures of a man mowing and the zodiac sign Cancer, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

On the lower section of the folio are the traditional miniatures of the labour of the month and the zodiac sign.  On the left a peasant is at work mowing grass, with a waterwheel visible in the background.  To the right is a lobster-like crab, for the zodiac sign Cancer.

Add_ms_18850_f006r_detail2
Detail of a marginal roundel of Juno, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

At the right of the folio is a miniature roundel of a crowned woman seated among chests full of gold and jewels.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio explain this unusual scene: this is Juno (Hera), who was both sister and wife of Jupiter (Zeus).  The month of June is of course named after Juno, who was ‘called the goddess of riches’ and also, interestingly, ‘put all the young men to the test of bravery’. 

Add_ms_18850_f006v
Calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v

Juno’s importance in the month of June is echoed on the following folio.  Amongst the remainder of the saints’ days are two miniature roundels.  The first shows the marriage of Hercules and Hebe, who was the cupbearer of the gods and the daughter of Juno and Jupiter.  Hebe was said to have the power to give eternal youth, and June is a month in which one could believe in such things.  The following scene shows two crowned kings greeting one another while holding branches of peace; the rubric is somewhat confusing but it most likely refers to the legendary peace between the Sabine king Titus Tatius and the Roman king Romulus, following which the two jointly ruled over Rome.

Add_ms_18850_f006v_detail1
Add_ms_18850_f006v_detail2
Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Hebe and Hercules and the peace between Titus Tatius and Romulus, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v

-  Sarah J Biggs 

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

Add comment

On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f039r
Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

012090
Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_ix_f011r
Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

Yates_thompson_ms_26_f051r
St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

Yates_thompson_ms_26_f002r
Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f002r
Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

Harley 4688 f89
Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

Arundel ms 74 f2v
Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

Add comment

The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

Little and Large 2
The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

Royal_ms_1_e_viii_fblefr (2) 

Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

Cotton_ms_augustus_v_f018r
Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scale—literally—the British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

Taverner Pratyerbook Ruler
The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

Stowe 956 ff. 1v-2
Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

CB with Add 89000
The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

***********

Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible