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181 posts categorized "Latin"

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.

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Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.

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The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.

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The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.

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The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.

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Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval

16 September 2016

Snakes, Mandrakes and Centaurs: Medieval Herbal Now Online

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Cannabis can be used to treat swollen breasts. The urine of a child has wrinkle-busting properties. Fern, mixed with wine, is a good treatment for wounds. (Sounds promising, although I might go easy on the fern part.) And should you fear encountering snakes, it is best to carry Adderwort with you. These are some of the nuggets of medical wisdom to be found in our recently digitised Sloane MS 1975. The manuscript is an illustrated collection of medical texts, made in England or Northern France in the last quarter of the 12th century.

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A man attempting to vanquish a serpent and an image of the Teazle plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 21r

Sloane 1975 contains a collection of different works, including a treatise on herbs by Pseudo-Apuleius (the name pseudo-Apuleius is used to refer to an anonymous 4th-century Roman author whose work was sometimes erroneously attributed to Apuleius), Pseudo-Dioscorides, 'De herbis femininis', and a text by Sextus Placitus of Papyra (active c. 370 CE), entitled 'De medicina ex animalibus'. It is extensively illustrated, and the images are a joy.

The image below depicts the Mandrake plant, which was used as an anaesthetic and treatment for melancholy, mania and rheumatic pain. (The plant can induce hallucinations  -- it produces tropane alkaloids: tropane alkaloids are also produced by Erythroxylum novogranatens, the plant which is used to create cocaine.) The roots of the mandrake have the habit of forking in two directions, and can appear to resemble a human figure. Depictions of it often show the plant with a human body or head. It was thought that the plant would scream when pulled from the earth and any who heard the screams would be condemned to death or damnation. Harvesting the plant would therefore pose some problems. The manuscript advises that strings should be attached to the plant and the other end of the strings attached to a dog, which would then pull the plant from the ground. Below, the dog can be seen harvesting the mandrake.

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A Mandrake, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 49r

The manuscript’s illustrations serve a variety of purposes. This one, below, shows the appropriate way to deal with a rabid dog. (Can you tell it’s rabid? The clue is in its *rabid*, red face.)

 

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Man and dog, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 24r

Should you be bitten by a rabid dog, the herbal elsewhere advises, it is best to consult a hen. If the hen has a good appetite, it bodes well for a speedy recovery.

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A hen bodes well for speedy recovery, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 14v

Many of the images illustrate the properties of particular plants, like the one depicting the mandrake. Others, however, appear to have a more incidental purpose. The illustration for Carmel gestures to the alternative names for the plant. Curmel is called ‘Centauria Maior’ in Greek, hence the image below depicts a centaur holding the plant.  

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To the left, the plant Carmel, to the right a centaur holds the plant, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 23r

Centaurs make an appearance elsewhere. This image shows the centaur Chiron giving herbs to the goddess Diana or Artemis (who was his foster mother according to some sources). He has apparently named three plants of the genus Artemisia after her. 

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Chiron gives herbs to Artemis, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 17v

The manuscript also contains a text called 'De medicina ex animalibus', which has some wonderful images of animals, including something that bills itself as an elephant, but in person looks more like a disappointed tapir vomiting up a tusk.

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An Elephant (apparently), England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 81v

Yet, alongside endearing images of animals, this manuscript also contains grisly images of medical treatment. In this image, a patient’s hands are tied behind his back, while a doctor performs surgery on his head – a grim reminder of the realities of medical treatment before anaesthetics were discovered.

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Grim images of medicine before anaesthesia, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 91v

A few folios on and the images get decidedly worse (yes, we also thought they couldn't get any worse). In the top left-hand corner of this image we can see a doctor removing haemorrhoids from a patient (the bowl on which the patient is standing may have been intended to catch the blood). Below this a doctor is excising a nasal growth, and to the right a doctor is removing cataracts. 

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Variety of hideous medical procedures, England or France, c. 1175–1200, Sloane MS 1975, f. 93r

This manuscript is currently on show in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam Museum's Colour exhibition. Read more about this exhibition and the manuscripts we have loaned to it here

Mary Wellesley 

@BLMedieval/@marywellesley

01 September 2016

A Calendar Page for September 2016

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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.

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Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.

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Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations.  On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact.  To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden.  Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown.  This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’.  The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.

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Calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio.  The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants.  Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’.  This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens.  At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her.  She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)

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Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September,
Add MS 18850, f. 9v

24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

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The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time with my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

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Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

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Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r

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Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!

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Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

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Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.

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Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

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Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.

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Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.

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Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton

@BLMedieval/@bbeckyL

20 August 2016

The Grandisson Psalter

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When John Grandisson (1292–1369) became bishop of Exeter in 1327, he was not taking up an easy job. His predecessor, Walter Stapeldon, had been murdered in London the previous year. The cathedral was half-finished. By 1348, the city was struck by the Black Death, bringing poverty everywhere.

John struck back at the confusion with beauty, ensuring that building works could continue, amassing a library, and making space to write. Perhaps the most stunning book he owned was his Psalter, held at the British Library, Add MS 21926, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Although the ‘Grandisson Psalter’ was made long before he was born, around 1270–80, we know that it was owned by John because he conveniently had his coat of arms added to the opening page. His will also survives, in which he bequeathed the book to princess Isabella (1332–79), the eldest daughter of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He called it ‘my rather beautiful Psalter’, with good reason.

The manuscript opens with a delightful calendar – like almost every liturgical book, as regular readers will know – showing the labours of the months and signs of the zodiac. Following this is a marvellous series of miniatures, first showing various saints. Opening the line-up are a cheerful St Christopher, carrying Christ, and St Margaret, triumphantly slaying a dragon with an extended cross/spear.

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St Christopher (‘Cristoforus’) and St Margaret (‘Margareta’): Add MS 21926, f. 9v

Following the saints are scenes from the life of Christ. Among these are an incredibly creepy Judas. He often comes across in medieval art as a merely pathetic figure, but here he looks to be aiming to replace Moriarty in the next series of Sherlock.

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Judas eating at the Last Supper and kissing Christ: Add MS 21926, f. 18v

Another scene shows an appropriately sceptical Thomas touching the side and hand of Christ. In the panel below is another scene of physical contact, showing Christ having dinner, presumably with Martha and Lazarus: he looks mildly embarrassed to have Mary Magdalene washing his feet.

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A doubting Thomas touching Christ and determined Mary Magdalene washing his feet: Add MS 21926, f. 23r

Following the miniatures, the psalms are beautifully written, with large decorated initials and intricate patterns filling in the white space at the end of the lines to create a unified block of text. Like several other illuminated Psalters from the period, some figures are included that act out the literal meaning of the text in a mildly humorous manner, probably meant as a memory aid. One page shows a man on a journey grabbing his tongue to illustrate the phrase, ‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue. I placed a guard on my mouth’ (Psalm 39:1/Vulgate 38:2, ‘Dixi custodiam uias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam’).

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‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue’: Add MS 21926, f. 66v

John Grandisson’s use of the book also comes through beyond his coat of arms. At the beginning of most psalms, music has been added in the lower margin giving the text and music of the antiphon, a sentence sung before and after the psalm. Since the music used for the antiphon is also used for the entire psalm, these small additions would have allowed him to sing the entire book.

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A motley crew of engaged and not-so-engaged clerics singing from a book on a lectern, with the chant for ‘Cantate domino canticum nouum’ (Psalm 97/98) later added: Add MS 21926, f. 132v

The continuing active use of the book is confirmed by the last section, which includes the text of the Office for the Dead. A later reader, probably John, used a slightly different variant on the rite than that recorded in the book. A scribe has carefully erased and modified sections of the text, also making changes to the punctuation of the text to fit local usage. These pages must have become particularly poignant for John in the context of the pestilence he faced.

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The beginning of the Office for the Dead, with the initial showing a body under a shroud being sprinkled with water: Add MS 21926, f. 208v

John Grandisson’s Psalter is a brilliant witness to the skill of artists and scribes in the late 13th century. We hope you love it as much as its original owners and creators.

Andrew Dunning

@BLMedieval/@anjdunning

08 August 2016

True Colours

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Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.

 

Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.

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St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r

 

Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

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Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 

 

Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

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Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)

 

Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

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Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.

@BLMedieval

01 August 2016

A Calendar Page for August 2016

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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.

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Calendar page for August from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

It’s a beautiful August on the pages of the Bedford Hours calendar.

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Detail of miniatures of a man threshing wheat and the zodiac sign Virgo, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

The month of August was one of heavy labour for medieval peasants, and at the bottom of the first folio for August we can see a man hard at work threshing wheat.  The landscape surrounding him seems hotter and drier than in previous months, and this background is mirrored in the accompanying miniature.  A young lady in blue appears to be saluting the noble peasant, for the zodiac sign Virgo.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Augustus, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature that echoes that of Julius Caesar from the end of July, with a king seated on a throne, surrounded by his counsel (albeit without the treasonous murder).  This is no accident, as this miniature is of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir.  August was named after the said Augustus, as the rubrics tell us, for this ‘nephew of Julius wanted a month to be dedicated to him like his uncle’.  And he apparently got his wish!

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Calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

The emphasis on Caesar Augustus continues on the following folio.  Adjoining the remainder of the saints’ days for August are two miniature roundels that illustrate additional episodes from the life of this Roman Emperor.  At the middle left is a scene of battle; in the midst of this a gray-bearded man looks at the viewer in a similar way as the throne miniature – this may be Augustus himself.  The rubrics tell us that this shows how ‘Augustus won victory from Anthony his comrade’, illustrating the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 27 BC.  Following this is a miniature of company travelling on horseback, many of whom are playing trumpets adorned with banners reading ‘paix’ (peace) in gold lettering.  This mirrors the rubrics yet again, which describe how Augustus ‘gave peace to the whole world in his time’. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of Caesar in battle and bringing peace, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

-  Sarah J Biggs

19 July 2016

Alexander Neckam’s Collections of Prometheus

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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)