Medieval manuscripts blog

138 posts categorized "Latin"

24 November 2015

Beware the Sybil's Prophecy!

Add comment Comments (0)

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a medieval best-seller, surviving in over 100 manuscripts from the 11th to the 16th century, predicts, among other things, the reign of evil despots, the return of the Antichrist and the sun turning to blood.

This, and our earlier two posts on Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts, focus on the tales that Ward classified as ‘CLASSICAL ROMANCES’. He lists 11 manuscripts of the Sibyl’s prophecy in our collections, but there are 15 in all.

Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Book of Hours, use of Rome, Master of James IV of Scotland, Bruges or Ghent, circa 1510, Add MS 35313, f. 90r

The Text

The Tenth or Tiburtine Sibyl was a pagan prophetess perhaps of Etruscan origin. To quote Lactantus in his general account of the ten sibyls in the introduction, ‘The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the Anio in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand’. (Tibur is the modern Tivoli: at the Villa d'Este, built in the 16th century, murals depict her prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.)

The work interprets the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world; 9 suns appear in the sky, each one more ugly and bloodstained than the last, representing the 9 generations of mankind and ending with Judgment Day. The original Greek version dates from the end of the 4th century and the earliest surviving manuscript in Latin is dated 1047 (Madrid, Escorial ms &.1.3). There are a small number of vernacular manuscripts, including an Anglo-Norman version by Philippe de Thaon (BnF fr. 25407). The Tiburtine Sibyl is often depicted with Emperor Augustus, who asks her if he should be worshipped as a god. This image from the margins of a Dutch prayerbook is an example:

Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v-18r E093635
Augustus kneeling, with the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesying, in the lower right border (f. 18r); a miniature of the Annunciation; historiated initial 'H'(ere) with Virgin and Child shown as the woman of the Apocalypse; John on Patmos in the border (f. 17v), at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, Netherlands, N. (Haarlem? or Beverwijk?), 1486, Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v - 18r.

Early English transmission of the prophecy is often linked to the larger monastic houses such as Rochester and Canterbury, where political prophecies such as the Prophecies of Merlin were popular works. Included in the text is a list of the succession of Roman emperors, and medieval scribes added to this and inserted significant political events from their own times into the prophecy. It is a short text of 3 or 4 folios, usually found in collections of chronicles and historical material, sometimes incorporated into other historical works, including those of Godfrey of Viterbo (12th century) and Matthew Paris (13th century). The emphasis on role of the emperors and kings in the history of the world made this an ideal tool of political propaganda and this may have accounted for its popularity.

The Latin text was often attributed to Bede, and was first printed among his works in Basel in 1563, and later among the works of Pseudo-Bede in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (PL 90, 1181B-1186C).

The Manuscripts

Ward lists the following manuscripts:

Royal MS 15 A XXII from Rochester Cathedral Priory and Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV from Christ Church, Canterbury, for which the former was the exemplar, are the earliest manuscripts in our collections, copied in the first quarter of the 12th century. Both also contain Solinus Collectanea and Dares Phrygius Historia Troianorum:

Initial 'P'(eleus) at the beginning of the introductory epistle of Dares Phrygius, England, S.E. (Rochester) 1st quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 15 A XXII, f. 73v

Royal MS 15 B XI (12/13C), closely related to the Royal and Cotton manuscripts above, and is again from Rochester Cathedral Priory.

Zoomorphic initial 'Q'(uo) with outline drawing of a dragon and foliate decoration from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which follow the Prophecy in this manuscript, England, S.E., 4th quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 15 B XI, f. 70v

Royal MS 13 A XIV, an Irish volume from the late 13th or early 14th century that formerly belonged to the Dominican Friary at Limerick and contains a version of the Topographia Hibernica of Giraldus Cambrensis.

Puzzle initial 'O'(mnibus), at the beginning of the Historia Mongalorum, Ireland, last quarter of the 13th century, or 1st quarter of the 14th century Royal MS 13 A XIV, f. 198r

Arundel MS 326: This historical and theological miscellany includes the annals of Abingdon and the Historia Regum Britanniae and is thought to be from Abingdon Abbey. For some reason Ward describes this manuscript in a later section dealing with the English chronicles, but does not include it in the list for the present text.

Egerton MS 810, from Germany in the late 12th or early 13th century and includes Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

Text page with a decorated initial from the beginning of the Life of Charlemagne, Germany, W. 1125-1174, Egerton MS 810, f. 94r.

Cotton MS Titus D III, a 13th-century copy in a collection with the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo and Apollonius of Tyre.

Cotton MS Claudius B VII, a 13th-century Litchfield manuscript that again includes Dares Phrygius, along with Turpin’s Chronicle and the Prophecies of Merlin.

Cotton MS Vespasian E IV, a 13th-century collection of chronicles and genealogies including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britannie

Cotton MS Caligula A X, an early 14th century manuscript containing a Chronicle of Worcester Cathedral Priory up to 1377 and other material relating to Worcester .

Cotton MS Domitian A XIII, a composite manuscript in which a version of the prophecy from the 13th century (ff. 104-107) is bound with a later 14th century copy (ff. 132v-134v).

Manuscripts not in Ward’s catalogue:

In her study, The Sibyl and Her Scribe, Anke Holdenried lists further copies of the text, now in the British Library, that were either not known to Ward or were acquired after his catalogue was published:

Add MS 50003

Add MS 50003_f. 220v
The tripartite prologue to the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, with a historiated initial ‘I’(heronimus) at the beginning, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 220v

This manuscript was one of seven manuscripts bequeathed to the British Museum by Charles William Dyson Perrins, collector and bibliophile (1914-1958). An illuminated Bible from Spain, copied by Johannes Poncii, canon of Vich in Catalonia in 1273, it provides one of the most fascinating contexts for the text and images of the Tiburtine Sibyl. The prophecy has been inserted into the biblical text in between the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs.

Add MS 50003_f.221r
Historiated initial ‘F’(uit) depicting the Tiburtine Sibyl, with the words ‘Decima tiburtina Grece’ in the lines above, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 221r.

Add MS 38665

In this early 15th-century collection, including Aesop’s fables, in the hand of John Streech, canon of the Augustinian Priory of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, the prophecy follows an excerpt of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Ymago Mundi.

Sloane MS 156, a 15th-century miscellany and Sloane MS 289, a direct copy from Arundel MS 326.

Other images of the Sibyl

The collections of chronicles and prophecies in which the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl is often found tended to be for practical use and therefore are not lavishly illustrated, but images of Tiburtina and her fellow sibyls appear in other contexts where their prophecies are alluded to.

This is an opportunity to display an image from the fabulous Harley MS 4431, produced by Christine de Pizan for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (b. 1371, d. 1435) and illuminated by two of the leading Parisian artists of the early 15th century. Included in this collection of Christine’s works is L'Épître Othéa (The Epistle of Othea to Hector), in which the goddess teaches Hector the art of chivalry, providing examples from characters in mythology, including the Tiburtine Sibyl.

Miniature of the Tiburtine Sibyl revealing to Caesar Augustus a vision of the Virgin and Child, in 'L'Épître Othéa', France (Paris), 1410-1440, Harley MS 4431, f. 141r.

Finally, a search for ‘sibyl’ in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives a number of results, including this French image of the Erithrean Sibyl, who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Erythrae in Ionia. It is from a copy of a French translation of Boccaccio’s work, Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées:

Detail of a miniature of the Erithrean Sibyl writing, with a partial border and a foliate initial 'E'(rithire), at the beginning of chapter XXI, France, N. (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 23.

Footnote: The Tiburtine Sibyl makes an appearance in the National Gallery’s current Botticini exhibition, ‘Visions of Paradise’, which we featured in a recent post.  There is an engraving of her, attributed to Baldini, which is compared to the Sibyl represented in Botticini’s painting. The catalogue points to the distinctive headdress of the Sibyls in both images, not dissimilar from the one in our image from a Flemish Book of Hours, shown above (Harley 2943, f. 1).

Further reading

L. D. Ward , Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1883-1910), I (1883), pp. 190-95.

Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin ‘Sibylla Tiburtina c.1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

- Chantry Westwell

21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

Add comment Comments (0)

As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

19 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library possesses the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. Many of these manuscripts are already available via our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we are delighted to announce that dozens more will be added in the coming months as part of a new digitisation project.  These manuscripts will include the B, D, and F versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscripts with early musical notation, Archbishop Wulfstan’s letter book, laws, saints’ lives, early manuscripts of Ælfric’s writings, charms, and medical recipes.  This digitisation has been generously funded by a donation made in memory of Melvin R Seiden.

Zoomorphic pen-drawn initial from the beginning of a book in an Old English translation and compilation of Orosius, from the Tollemache Orosius, Add MS 47967, f. 48v

The first five manuscripts have gone already gone online.  These include the earliest copy of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos, an early eleventh-century schoolbook, and two manuscripts associated with Bishop Leofric of Exeter.  So click over to Digitised Manuscripts for images of fantastical creatures in interlace initials, an imaginary dialogue between a monk, a cook, and a baker, and early musical notation! 

Zoomorphic initial ‘H’ at the beginning of a text, Harley MS 110, f. 3r

Add MS 28188:  Pontifical with litanies and benedictional (imperfect), England (Exeter), 3rd quarter of the 11th century

Add MS 32246:  Fragment of Excerptiones de Prisciano with the 'Elegy of Herbert and Wulfgar', glossaries, and Ælfric's Colloquy, England (Berkshire?), 1st half of the 11th century

Add MS 47967:  Orosius, Historia adversus paganos ('The Old English Orosius' or 'The Tollemache Orosius' ), England (Winchester), 900-1000

Harley MS 110:  Glossed copy of Prosper, Epigrammata ex sententiis S. Augustini, Versus ad coniugem, Isidore, Synonyma de lamentatione animae peccatricis; two leaves from a gradual, England, 975-1060

Harley MS 2961:  Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter Cathedral), 1050-1072

Text page with musical neumes, from the Leofric Collectar, Harley MS 2961, f. 10r

Additionally, as this project continues, some manuscripts may be unavailable as they are being digitised.  Readers intending to consult Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that have not already been made available on Digitised Manuscripts should therefore please contact the British Library's Manuscripts Reference Team ( before planning a visit.

Detail of a text page with a sheep drawn around a hole in the parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius,
Add MS 47967, f. 62v

-  Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

08 September 2015

A Romance from Ward’s Catalogue: Apollonius of Tyre

Add comment Comments (0)

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

- Hannah Morcos

23 June 2015

Livy Among the Humanists

Add comment Comments (0)

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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