Medieval manuscripts blog

135 posts categorized "Latin"

08 September 2015

A Romance from Ward’s Catalogue: Apollonius of Tyre

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Harry Leigh Douglas Ward (1825–1906) worked in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum for 44 years from 1849, two years after he graduated from Oxford, until his retirement in 1893. During this time he produced the monumental British Museum Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in 3 volumes (the third volume was published posthumously from his notes by his colleague, J. A. Herbert). For medieval scholars this remains an essential reference work on literature, legends and chronicles, as well as a comprehensive overview of the large numbers of manuscripts containing these works in the collections of the British Library. We plan to feature his work in a series of blogposts, focusing on some of the lesser-known tales he catalogued, and featuring images from our online catalogues.

The first volume of the Catalogue, published in 1883, covers the classical romances of Troy and Alexander, the cycles of French and English origin (King Arthur, Charlemagne and William of Orange), and associated legends. 

We will start, as he does, with the CLASSICAL ROMANCES:

Royal_ms_15_e_vi_f011r DETAIL

Alexander on horseback addressing his army, from the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury Book’, northern France (Rouen) 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 11r

The Troy legend and the Alexander romances have already been featured on this blog. Less well-known is the legend of Apollonius of Tyre, for which Ward lists 10 British Library manuscripts from the 13th to the 18th century, one in French, two in Icelandic and the remainder in Latin (Ward, Catalogue of Romances I (1883), pp. 161–70). The Historia Apollonii regis Tyri, to give it its Latin name, is a prose narrative from the imperial or late antique era, perhaps based on a Greek original, popular throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, and adapted by Gower and Shakespeare. According to Ward, the earliest mention of this work is in a list of books belonging to Wando, abbot of Fontanelle in the diocese of Rouen from AD 742 to 747, which lists ‘Historiam Apollonii regis Tyri in codice uno’. Ward tells us that the booklist is from the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium published in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol ii of 1829 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p.161).


King Antiochus attacking his daughter in her chamber, with a full border containing a space left for a shield of arms, at the beginning of the ‘Historia Apollonii regis Tyri’, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 210r

The story exists in several different versions, but in a nutshell, is as follows: King Antiochus of Antioch has an exceptionally beautiful daughter, so beautiful that he cannot resist her charms and forces her into an incestuous relationship. Many suitors come to try to win her hand, but the King sets them an unsolvable riddle, then beheads them, whether or not they are able to solve the riddle. Prince Apollonius of Tyre comes to try his luck and is successful, but King Antiochus will not relinquish his daughter. Apollonius flees and is pursued by the king’s men, surviving various shipwrecks and adventures (including more riddle-solving), marrying and later being separated from his wife and daughter, Thasia, both of whom he believes to be dead. He is finally reunited with them and goes on to rule for many years, a virtuous king and faithful husband. In some versions of the legend, the wicked King Antiochus is struck by God’s thunderbolt as he is lying in bed with his daughter — a fitting end!

The earliest manuscript of this text in the British Library is in Sloane MS 1619, dating from the beginning of the 13th century, with a collection of three tales, the others being an abridged version of the Alexander legend and Dares Phrygiusaccount of the Trojan war. It was copied in England, probably at the Priory of St Oswald, Gloucester and contains 10 riddles, which Ward lists (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 161–63).


Concluding lines of Apollonius of Tyre and decorated initial at the beginning of Dares Phrygius, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Sloane MS 1619, f. 29r

From the end of the 13th century is Arundel MS 292 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p. 163), in which Apollonius is rather out of place in a devotional miscellany from Norfolk that includes a copy of the Creed, a bestiary in English and various tracts in prose and verse. Ward tells us that this version has only 7 of the 10 riddles and is in 22 sections. There are no photographed folios from Apollonius but here is the opening page of the manuscript with the Creed in Middle English beginning 'I leve in Godd almicten fader / Dat hevene and erthe made to gar':


The Creed and the Lord's Prayer in English, with their titles in Latin in red in the margin : 'Credo in Deum' and 'Pater Noster'.  The pressmark of Norwich Cathedral library in the upper margin, England, E (Norfolk) last quarter of the 13th century, Arundel MS 292, f. 3r

Of course, Edward IV had to have a copy of this popular work with lavish illustrations to add to his collection of classical and historical works in French. His volume, Royal MS 20 C II, begins with a version of the prose romance of Cleriadus et Meliadice, distantly related to the Arthurian tales (this will be featured in a later post), followed by the legend Apollonius. The miniature below is taken from this manuscript, the only illustrated version of the legend in our collections. And here at last, is a picture of the eligible Apollonius, kneeling before his future wife, the daughter of Archestratus of Cyrene! He has been shipwrecked on the shore of Cyrene and becomes her lute teacher, then is chosen by her from among her many illustrious suitors to be her future husband.


The princess of Cyrene giving Apollonius a letter to her father telling him she has chosen the shipwrecked sailor as her husband, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 217v

The two Icelandic manuscripts, Additional MS 4857 and Add MS 4864 are of much later provenance, copied in the 17th century. Ward had a special interest in Norse sagas, and he provides a comprehensive description of the origin of the texts, scribes and quotations in Icelandic (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 167–68). His colleague at the British Museum, J. A. Herbert, wrote of Ward in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

In his early official years he made a catalogue of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Museum; this was never printed, but is preserved among the books of reference in the students' room. His attention was thus directed, by way of the Norse sagas, to the study of mediæval romantic literature in general, which became henceforth the engrossing interest of his life, and in which, through his wide reading, retentive memory, and sound critical instinct, he acquired exceptional proficiency. 

A final word on Apollonius. There is an Old English version of the legend in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, a mid-11th century manuscript containing homilies by Ælfric and Wulfstan. It is an extremely rare early example of prose in the vernacular, and has even been described as the first novel in English!

Chantry Westwell

04 September 2015

Tales of Lincolnshire from Five British Library Manuscripts

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As part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, the county of Lincolnshire is currently hosting an exhibition that celebrates everything that makes this county great. One of the four original 1215 endorsements of Magna Carta is held at Lincoln Cathedral and it was this piece of parchment that Churchill promised to the Americans as an incentive to join WWII (revealed in these cabinet papers recently on display in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition). But of course this is not Lincolnshire’s only claim to fame.

Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition explores the key historical events, famous figures and artistic achievements of this influential English county. In partnership with the British Library, five manuscripts from our collection are being exhibited, including one of the most renowned English illuminated manuscripts, the Luttrell Psalter.

So what can we learn about Lincolnshire from these five books?

1. Following the earthquake of 1185, Lincoln Cathedral was rebuilt under the supervision of its new Bishop, St Hugh

Detail of the beginning of ‘The Metrical Life of St Hugh’, from a miscellany of theological, grammatical and historical texts, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Royal MS 13 A IV, f. 9r

Royal MS 13 A IV contains one of only two extant copies of The Metrical Life of St Hugh. In this account of the Bishop’s life, a significant passage is dedicated to his expansion and rebuilding of the cathedral, and the theological symbolism of its architectural design.

2. Lincolnshire is the birthplace of St Gilbert, founder of the only native English religious Order


Beginning of the Life of Gilbert of Sempringham, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra B I, f. 32r

One of Lincolnshire’s most famous sons is Gilbert of Sempringham (b. c. 1083, d. 1189). Unsuited to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Norman knight and landholder, Gilbert was sent to be educated. On his return, while rector of the parish church of Sempringham, he became the spiritual director of a community of anchoresses residing in a cloister attached to the church. Over a number of years and despite Gilbert’s own intentions, the Gilbertine Order was gradually established.

3. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, patron of the Luttrell Psalter, was involved in a dispute between his friend Roger de Birthorpe and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Detail of a miniature of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, mounted, armed, and attended by his wife Agnes (d. 1340), daughter of Sir Richard de Sutton, and his daughter-in-law Beatrice, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Scrope of Masham, below the inscription 'D(ominus) Galfridus Louterell me fieri fecit' (Lord Geoffrey Luttrell caused me to be made), from the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 202v

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (b. 1276, d. 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire, is most renowned for being the patron of the Luttrell Psalter. He was a knight of the realm and landowner, possessing a large number of estates across England, thanks both to fortunate conjugal alliances and his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey, who was rewarded with many properties for his loyal service to King John. Around the year 1312, Geoffrey was involved in a dispute between a group of local gentry and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, situated seven miles to the north east of Irnham. In a royal order dated 27 July 1312, they are accused of breaking down the doors of the priory and making off with £500 worth of goods. Yet, in a review of the evidence, Joyce Coleman suggests that Geoffrey’s friend Roger de Birthorpe was in fact the instigator (‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell's Raid on Sempringham Priory, 1312’, British Library Journal (1999), 103-28). Whilst this event appears to have caused no lasting damage to the patron of our famous manuscript, Roger ended up exiled as an outlaw in Ireland. By the time of his death, Geoffrey was on better terms with the priory; his daughter Isabella was residing there as a nun, which might explain why he bequeathed 20 shillings to the establishment in his will.   

4. Eleanor of Castile’s entrails were interred in a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral


Tomb of Eleanor of Castile, from Dugdale's Book of Monuments, England, 1640-1641, Add MS 71474, f. 98v

To commemorate the death of Eleanor of Castile (b. 1241, d. 1290), Edward I commissioned the manufacture of three lavish tombs and twelve memorial crosses between Lincoln and London. Her embalmed body was interred in a tomb in Westminster Abbey, and an almost identical tomb was created for the Queen’s entrails in Lincoln Cathedral. The third tomb, containing her heart, was constructed in the Dominican church of the Blackfriars, London. The tombs at Lincoln and Westminster were the most elaborate, each surmounted by a gilt-bronze effigy, made by the goldsmith William Torel. Unfortunately, the Lincoln tomb was defaced during the English Civil Wars. However, thanks to this pen and colour wash illustration by William Sedgwick, in Sir William Dugdale's Book of Monuments, we have evidence of its original form and similarity to the Westminster tomb.

5. John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln and confessor to Henry VIII, was an unpopular figure during the Lincolnshire rising


Full-page miniature of a bishop, with Bishop Longland’s coat of arms and the red-and-white Tudor rose of Henry VIII in the border, from the Benedictional of John Longland, England, c. 1521, Add MS 21974, f. 21v

A great scholar and preacher, John Longland (b. 1520, d. 1547) became Bishop of Lincoln in May 1521, and was Henry VIII’s confessor by 1524. While in many ways a traditionalist, Bishop Longland supported the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the dissolution of the monasteries (indeed, he was particularly critical about the bad behaviour of monks). The residents of Lincolnshire, however, did not share his views. In October 1536, they mobilised in protest against the suppression of the monasteries and the establishment of the Church of England. The Bishop’s chancellor was even murdered by a mob in Horncastle. The movement gained momentum across the north of England and Longland was named on a list of heretics compiled by the rebels in York.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition, which runs until 27 September 2015.

23 June 2015

Livy Among the Humanists

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Harley MS 2493 contains a copy of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Being over 800 years old, however, means this manuscript has more than one story to tell. A manuscript’s provenance, its journey to the present day through its various former owners, is often as interesting and edifying as the text itself. This manuscript, for instance, becomes a key source for Livy’s classical text only after passing though the hands of two immensely significant Renaissance figures: Francesco Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla.

Harley MS 2493, f 145r: long comment in Valla’s hand at the bottom of the folio.

The manuscript came to the Library in 1753 as part of the collection acquired by Robert and Edward Harley in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Prior to this, it was in the custody of the Jesuit College in Agen, which was in operation between 1591 and 1762. It is unknown how the manuscript made its way to the college, but the manuscript itself indicates that it was in the hands of Lorenzo Valla before that. Valla was an influential Italian humanist in the early 15th century, apostolic secretary to Pope Nicholas V and professor of rhetoric in Rome, and this manuscript was likely his own copy: he makes a great number of annotations, jotted down in the manner of personal notes, and even signs several of the pages.

Harley MS 2493, f 167v: Valla’s signature, LAV VAL, in the inner margin.

While the editing of classical texts was by no means new in Valla’s time, the humanists, driven for learning and motivated in particular by classical literature, proved themselves remarkable as Greek and Latin editors – though not always free of error. There was a strong desire in the Renaissance to produce a trustworthy text, as true as possible to the original. Valla was at the forefront of Latin scholarship, and his own desire for an accurate text led him to many great successes.

Harley MS 2493, f 93r. Portion of the manuscript copied in the 12th century.
Harley MS 2493, f 92r. Portion of the manuscript copied by Petrarch in the 14th century.

But Valla was not the first (or last) to handle this manuscript. Although much of the codex dates from the 12th century, it was completed in the 14th-century by Francesco Petrarch himself, the famed Italian scholar and poet. Petrarch personally copied some thirty folios of the manuscript, comprising the final sections of Decades I and III, and added copious notes to the text. These notes were used by Valla, and influenced his Emendationes in T. Livium. There are many pages where this cooperation can be seen quite clearly.

Harley_ms_2493_f105v detail
Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Emendations by Petrarch (between the lines) and marginalia by Valla.

Livy’s history of Rome remains a work of incredible literary value, and the text we read today is in part the result of the efforts of humanist scholars. On Digitised Manuscripts, you can explore Petrarch and Valla’s own copy!

-          Andrew St. Thomas

12 June 2015

The Beginnings of the Codex

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Over the first few centuries A.D., a change occurred in how people created and consumed books in the Graeco-Roman world. In the early first century, books were on papyrus rolls. By late antiquity, the majority of books were produced as codices, not very different from the books we still use today, and parchment had supplanted papyrus as the writing support of choice. How and why this transition occurred is a question that continues to occupy the attention of anyone interested in the early history of the book. There are three main phenomena that are clearly interrelated: the transition from roll to codex, the transition from papyrus to parchment, and the rise of Christianity. That last factor may come at first as a surprise, but with only a very few exceptions (and even they are disputed) all fragments of the New Testament from the first few centuries are taken from codices, not rolls. But literary texts (especially those written in Greek) continue to be written primarily on rolls until the fourth century. Certainly, it seems that early Christians had a clear preference for the codex form. Does it perhaps mean that the rise of Christianity helped the codex to gain the upper hand, too? We still have too little evidence to tell this story as clearly as we would like, and we are always at the mercy of some new piece of evidence overturning everything we believed to be true. (The recently-discovered Peri Alupias of Galen, for instance, contains references to parchment codices at Rome in the late second century, providing further evidence for the use of the codex form at an earlier stage.) It’s also important to note that the majority of our evidence for the early book comes from Egypt, and we should be cautious about generalising too much from this: Greek books in Egypt may have looked rather different from Latin books in Rome.

Papyrus 745, recto. Fragment of an anonymous historical work, known as the De Bellis Macedonicis. Late first-early second century.

It’s against this backdrop that we present our latest addition to Digitised Manuscripts. Though only a very small fragment (85x50mm, about two-thirds the size of your average smartphone), Papyrus 745 (P. Oxy. I 30) is of particular significance for the early history of the book. It is the earliest fragment of a Latin codex yet known, and perhaps the earliest codex in any language, aside from wax tablets, such as the Posidippius codex. (P. Oxy. 470, a Greek mathematical treatise, is listed on the Leuven Database of Ancient Books as being from the first century, but it is not clear where this date comes from – all studies I have seen report it as being of the third century.) Found along with that great treasure-trove of texts at Oxyrhynchus, it is generally dated to the end of the first century or beginning of the second, primarily based on the script. Indeed, even Grenfell and Hunt, who first edited the fragment in 1898, remarked that the script was very similar to that of the De Bello Actiaco, an epic poem preserved on a papyrus found at Herculaneum (and thus to be dated before the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79).But the fact that the text was in codex form, and written on parchment rather than papyrus, led the first editors to deem it “not earlier than the third century”. A later study by Jean Mallon made clear that the fragment must date from around 100, on palaeographical grounds. Dating ancient book-hands precisely is very difficult, and in our catalogue entry we have dated the manuscript to “Late first-early second century”.

Papyrus 745, verso. Fragment of an anonymous historical work, known as the De Bellis Macedonicis. Late first-early second century.

The text preserved on the manuscript is known as the De Bellis Macedonicis (On the Macedonian Wars), as from the small amount of text we have, it clearly refers to the wars between Rome and Macedonia in the third and second centuries BC. It was initially suggested that it was an extract from Pompeius Trogus’ lost Historiae Philippicae, though a recent study by Alexander Kouznetsov has suggested, based on the fragment’s prose rhythm, that it may be the work of Lucius Arruntius.

Where does this fragment fit into the story of the development of the codex? The fact that it is a parchment codex, and written in Latin, makes it more likely than not that it was created outside of Egypt (Bischoff believed it originated in Italy). We have roughly contemporary evidence for parchment codices from the poetry of Martial, and there is additional evidence (including perhaps from the New Testament, at 2 Tim. 4:13) of parchment notebooks being particularly popular with travellers, as they were more easily transportable than bookrolls. Could we see the fragment then as supporting the hypothesis that the codex grew to prominence in Rome (in contrast to the bookrolls favoured in the East), and that our lack of additional early codices is due largely to the fact that the majority of our early books come from Egypt, and that the Latin-speaking West is seriously underrepresented in the evidence we have? It’s certainly possible. But we must be cautious. With such a small fragment we have no way of knowing, for instance, how large the original page or bifolium would have been, let alone the size of the codex itself. (We can at least be certain that it’s a codex and not a bookroll because it is clearly the same text on both sides, and when bookrolls are reused, the text tends to be upside down on the verso relative to the recto.)

There is far more to say about this fragment, but that will have to wait for another day. This tiny scrap of parchment is invaluable for the glimpse it gives us of what codices looked like in the early Roman Empire, and while the discovery of additional early Latin books would greatly help us to understand more about book production in the first and second centuries, for the moment, the De Bellis Macedonicis is assured of its status as the earliest Latin codex in existence.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

16 May 2015

The Harley Trilingual Psalter

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Harley MS 5786, f 106v. Coloured initials at the beginning of Psalm 80, and marginal annotation in Arabic noting that this is the reading for Fridays.

Sicily in the twelfth century was an island of many languages. The Harley Trilingual Psalter (Harley MS 5786) bears eloquent witness to this multilingual culture. Written in three parallel columns, it presents the text of the Psalms in the Greek of the Septuagint, the Latin of the Vulgate, and the the 11th-century Arabic translation of Abu'l-Fath 'Abdallāh ibn al-Fadl ibn 'Abdallāh al-Mutrān al-Antaki. On the basis of the script and a faded inscription on the verso of the last folio, the manuscript can be dated to between 1130 and 1153, and was almost certainly written in Palermo, at the court of Roger II of Sicily.

Harley 5786 f174v_PSC
Harley MS 5786, f 173v: faded inscription dated 8 January 1153.

The inscription which helps to date the manuscript marks the date 8 January 1153. This is now very faded, as can be seen from the image above, though it was transcribed in the mid-18th century by Thomas Birch and William Watson. Multi-spectral imaging can make the inscription more legible and confirms the reading of Birch and Watson.

Harley5786 f174v_Composite-14pca
Harley MS 5786, f 173v, multi-spectral image of the inscription.

The inscription is written in Latin, but the hand does not match any of the scribal hands that contributed to writing the Latin text of the Psalms, so 1153 is best taken as a date before which the manuscript was written. As for the localisation of the manuscript in Palermo, the script of all three columns helps us here: The Greek script is that known as "Reggio-style", which is characteristic not merely of Reggio but of the Sicilian and Calabrian region more generally. Similarly, the Latin script (written by at least six hands) is typical Italian protogothic. The Arabic script is very similar to that of the diwani script introduced into Sicily in c. 1130.

Harley_ms-5786_f087r detail
Beginning of Psalm 68, Harley MS 5786 f 87r.

The Psalms are all numbered in each column, according to the numbering system of each language. Thus Greek numerals (not visible in this image) are used in the Greek column, Roman numerals in the Latin, and Arabic numerals in the Arabic column. The only marginalia to be found in the manuscript (aside from occasional later corrections) are notes in Arabic written in the margins, all of which refer to the Latin liturgy. In the image above, for instance, the Arabic marginal note says “Reading for Thursday night”. These marginal notes have led some to believe that this manuscript was used by Arabic-speaking Christians to follow along with Latin services in Palermo. Yet its status as a trilingual psalter surely also helps to serve the political purposes of Roger II himself, who took pains to present himself as a king of all the people of Sicily: speakers of Greek, of Latin, and of Arabic. In this regard, the Trilingual Psalter is a parallel to architectural works such as the Cappella Palatina, which fused Byzantine, Arab, and Norman forms. Whatever its purpose, the Harley Trilingual Psalter reminds us of the multilingual nature of twelfth-century Sicily, and of the different social groups living in Palermo at that time.

- Cillian O'Hogan

05 May 2015

An Even More Giant List of Manuscript Hyperlinks: Spring Update

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The trees are blossoming and so too is our giant list of manuscript hyperlinks.

Download BL Ancient Medieval and Early Modern Digitised Manuscripts Master List 28.04.15

Miniature of a group of angels singing and scattering flowers, from Divina commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 118r


The British Library’s website of Digitised Manuscripts has been flourishing over the last few months. It now features a second illustrated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Egerton MS 943), an 11th-century Mozarabic liturgy (Add MS 30845) and psalter (Add MS 30851), a treatise in French written by a young Edward VI (Add MS 5464), and the Hours of René of Anjou (Egerton MS 1070).

Mozarabic Liturgy, Spain, North (Burgos, ?Santo Domingo de Silos), 11th century, Add MS 30845, f. 42r

There was cause for cheer (and the most incredible cake) when we published the long-awaited manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail cycle (Add MS 10292, Add MS 10293, Add MS 10294 and Add MS 10294/1).

The Greek Digitisation Project also came to a triumphant close with the upload of the final 75 manuscripts, which were featured in a recent blog post.

Some other early highlights from 2015 include three monumental Romanesque Bibles: the Parc Abbey Bible (Add MS 14788, Add MS 14789 and Add MS 14790), the Stavelot Bible (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107, find out more here), and the Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799), with its famous depictions of the monstrous races. In addition, we published the British Library’s volumes of the Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée (Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527, discussed here) and a rather wonderful Apocalypse manuscript (Yates Thompson MS 10).

St Luke's ox introduces the final horseman: he emerges from a gaping monster's mouth riding a pale horse and holding a sword (Revelation, 6: 7-8), from Apocalypse, France (Paris), c. 1370–c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 10r


And the first batch of Paston letters recently went live too!

But of course our work does not end here. As well as more letters from the Paston volumes, the summer months will bring six manuscripts with French prose romances, two incredible Biblical picture books and the 15th-century illustrations of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels. Watch this space!

- Hannah Morcos

25 April 2015

King John's Last Will and Testament

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Did you know that the oldest surviving original English royal will is on display in our Magna Carta exhibition? And that it was written on behalf of King John in October 1216? Here, Katie Har -- who was part of the team which worked on the exhibition -- examines its context.

Will B1693
The will of King John (Worcester Cathedral Muniments B1693), on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

In the autumn of 1216, with the kingdom still embroiled in civil war, King John fell ill, probably of dysentery, while in the prosperous -- and, more importantly, friendly to the Crown -- port and town of Lynn. His illness steadily worsened as he made his way back through Lincolnshire, making it as far as the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Then, on the 18th or 19th of October (depending on which sources are to be believed) John eventually succumbed to his illness.

Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire by the River Trent

In the last days before his death John had his will drawn up. In it he specifically stated that the gravity of his illness prevented him from drawing up an itemized will, so instead he named 13 men to oversee the fulfilment of his wishes. Here is the text of his will, in English translation (taken from S. Church, English Historical Review, 125 (2010)):

I, John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, hindered by grave infirmity and not being able at this time of my infirmity to itemize all my things so that I may make a testament, commit the arbitration and administration of my testament to the trust and to the legitimate administration of my faithful men whose names are written below, without whose counsel, even in good health, I would have by no means arranged my testament in their presence, so that what they will faithfully arrange and determine concerning my things as much as in making satisfaction to God and to holy Church for damages and injuries done to them as in sending succour to the land of Jerusalem and in providing support to my sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance and in making reward to those who have served us faithfully and in making distribution to the poor and to religious houses for the salvation of my soul, be right and sure. I ask, furthermore, that whoever shall give them counsel and assistance in the arranging of my testament shall receive the grace and favour of God. Whoever shall infringe their arrangement and disposition, may he incur the curse and indignation of almighty God and the blessed Mary and all the saints.

In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester. I appoint, moreover, the following arbiters and administrators: the lord Guala, by the grace of God, cardinal-priest of the title of St Martin and legate of the apostolic see; the lord Peter bishop of Winchester; the lord Richard bishop of Chichester; the lord Silvester bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St-Maur; William Marshal earl of Pembroke; Ranulf earl of Chester; William earl Ferrers; William Brewer; Walter de Lacy and John of Monmouth; Savaric de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté.

If concessions are made for the practice of sealing rather than signing documents, this is a valid will as we would know it today. It fulfils all the criteria: that the person writing the will must be 18 or over; that they make it voluntarily; be of sound mind; make it in writing; sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18; and have it signed by their two witnesses, in their presence. Perhaps, following the use of the Latin word ‘testamentum’ in this document, we should refer to it as a ‘testament’ rather than a ‘will’. Our modern use of the word ‘will’ links back to the Old English phrase ‘ic wille’ (I desire), used in the Anglo-Saxon period in documents directing the disposal of one’s property after one’s death.

The alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

While there is an entire corpus of these sorts of documents going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, King John’s will is the earliest English royal will to survive in its original form. We have later copies of wills of two Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred (d. 899) and Eadred (d. 955), as well as multiple copies of the will of John’s father, Henry II (d. 1189). There are references to, but no texts for, those of his brother Richard (d. 1199) or his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). There was no regular practice of enrolling or necessarily carefully preserving royal wills in the governmental records, either before John's reign or subsequently under his son Henry III, so it’s perhaps a fluke that this document has managed to survive to this day.  

The document itself is small, around the size of a postcard. From the fold at the bottom and the slits found there, the royal seal clearly once hung from the bottom of the will, likely accompanied by the seals of the 8 appointed executors present at the drawing up of the will. With only half of the kingdom under royal control at his death, one of the responsibilities of the men chosen to execute John’s last will lay ‘in providing support to [his] sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance’. Among the 13 overseers we find named Guala (d. 1227), the papal legate, and the future regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Both men played a major part in securing the throne for Henry III, including being instrumental in the 1216 reissue of Magna Carta.

King John's will has been very generously loaned by Worcester Cathedral to the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. John was buried at Worcester in accordance with the terms of his will. Next year Worcester Cathedral will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of King John's death, and in 2015-16 they are also hosting a series of special events relating to King John and Magna Carta.


Katherine Har

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. There is also a comprehensive events programme and a website dedicated to Magna Carta.

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

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We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts Sloane MS 345, a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts, from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane 1977, f. 2r

-          Chantry Westwell