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168 posts categorized "Latin"

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

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

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

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

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

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Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible

12 May 2016

St Pancras: From Roman Martyr to London Station

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May 12 is St Pancras’s Day, writes Peter Toth. As the name of London’s second busiest railway and underground station, the name ‘St Pancras’ is well known to many Londoners, as well as travellers from abroad, as the station is the terminus for Eurostar trains arriving from Europe.

The station is also across the road from the British Library. Colin St John Wilson's iconic, red-brick design for the library visually riffs on St Pancras Station's Victorian architecture. But how many of the thousands of people who pass through St Pancras Station and past the British Library each day are aware of the story behind the name?

Not much is known about the martyr St Pancras. The main source for his life is a short Latin account of his martyrdom. According to this text, Pancras was born to a wealthy Christian family somewhere in Phrygia (in modern day Turkey). After the death of his parents, he moved to Rome with his guardian. There Pancras and his guardian gave shelter to Christians persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE). When the Emperor heard of  Pancras’s efforts to save Christians, he immediately summoned him. To his surprise, he discovered that Pancras was only 14 years old and, seeing his youth and determination, subjected him to a long trial.

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

According to this account, Diocletian was impressed by Pancras, telling him, “My dear boy, take my advice and save yourself and give up this madness and I will treat you as my own son.” But, even after a long discussion to dissuade him from Christianity, Pancras remained true to his faith. Enraged, the Emperor ordered his immediate execution. Pancras was beheaded and buried by the Via Aureliana in Rome around 287CE.

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Detail of St Pancras's martyrdom, from Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 250r

As with many of the early Christian martyrs, it was not his life or even his martyrdom that made Pancras' cult so popular, but the miracles associated with his tomb and relics. In around 590CE Gregory, the archbishop of Tours in France, claimed that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon or would collapse and die. Consequently, an oath on Saint Pancras' relics was thought so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness's testimony. 

No wonder, therefore, that Pancras’s relics were soon distributed to many other churches, towns and countries, including far-flung regions like Britain.

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End of Pope Vitalian’s letter to Oswiu, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825,  Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 111r

Perhaps the earliest written reference to the cult of Pancras in Britain comes from a letter from Pope Vitalian to King Oswiu of Northumbria in the 660s, copied by Bede into his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The British Library has recently digitised a very early copy of Bede’s History (Cotton Tiberius A XIV). Vitalian mentions that he has sent Oswiu’s messengers back with relics of St Pancras and other Roman saints. The relics of Pancras sent by popes to England may have been used to re-consecrate old Romano-British churches or to set up new churches. As a result, churches dedicated to Pancras often claim to be among the oldest in Britain. These include St Pancras Old Church in Camden, a church near the British Library, from which the railway station takes its name.

From the 18th century onwards, St Pancras Old Church was widely regarded as one of the earliest churches in England. Although historical and archaeological evidence shows that the church does have early medieval origins, its early history before it is mentioned in Domesday Book is difficult to unravel. Efforts to do so, however, have resulted in important finds and discoveries.

One of the residents of the area, Ambrose Heal Sr, chairman of Heal’s Furniture in the early 1900’s, gathered a considerable collection of materials related to the parish of St Pancras. It was his enthusiasm for documents relating to Pancras that led him to acquire an eleventh-century manuscript containing one of the earliest copies of the life and the office (a set of prayers and hymns) of the saint. This manuscript, which his widow generously bequeathed to the British Library in 1914, is a part of a large collection of saints’ lives from eleventh-century Fulda, in what is now Germany. 

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Page from an Office for St Pancras, Fulda, 11th century, Add MS 38914A, f. 2r

St Pancras’s name marks a large spot on London’s street map, but the figure of the fourteen-year old Roman child-martyr himself is now forgotten. 12th May, the anniversary of his execution in Rome, is a good occasion to reflect on his long journey from early Christian Rome to the centre of Britain's bustling capital.

 

01 May 2016

A Calendar Page for May 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 May from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

All is lovely and bright in these calendar pages for May, in keeping with the joys of this most splendid of months.

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Detail of miniatures of a man going hawking and the zodiac sign Gemini, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

At the bottom of the folio is a typical ‘labour’ for May, albeit one in keeping with the aristocratic emphasis of this manuscript.  On the left is a miniature of a man hawking, clad in luxurious clothing (note particularly the gold-embroidered stockings he is sporting).  He rides a gray horse through a rural landscape with a castle in the distance.  A similar landscape can be found to the right, where two blonde androgynous figures embrace, for the zodiac sign Gemini.  They stand behind a gilded shield, which has been adorned by pricking in an excellent example of gold work.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the seven Pleiades, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

The rubrics at the bottom of the folio add another dimension of understanding to the other miniature roundels for this month.  On the upper right of this folio is a painting of the seven Pleiades, the mythological daughters of the titan Atlas and a sea-nymph.  The eldest of these daughters is Maia (labelled Maya on the painting), who was the mother of Mercury (Hermes).  The rubric informs us that the month of May is named after May, ‘because the aforesaid Mercury is called the god of eloquence and the master of rhetoric and marketing’ (‘merchandise’).  This must certainly be a very early use of that latter term!

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Calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

The emphasis on aristocratic and/or divine love continues on the following folio.  The rubrics on this folio describe how Honour was married to Reverence, a marriage we can see witness by a group of praying men.   Below this is a scene depicting ‘how the ancient nobles governed the people and the queens loved them’.  A very pleasant image indeed!

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Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Honour and Reverence and the governance of a city, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

-  Sarah J Biggs

30 April 2016

Fit for a King’s Sister

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Looking for a story about an exiled princess who married a count called Drogo? Forget Daenerys: the real story revolves around Godgifu.

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Initial B from a Gospel-book, England (Canterbury?), 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

The British Library has recently digitised an intriguing 11th-century Gospel-book. This manuscript is full of surprises: a red-eyed figure pops out of an arcade surrounding some canon tables. An initial in red and orange decorated with criss-crossed and curly patterns jumps out at the start of the Pater Noster. In other parts, the manuscripts seems to be unfinished, with blank spaces left for initials which were never completed. And at the bottom of a page with a giant initial ‘B’, a 13th-century monk left a useful note, which claims that this 'text [belongs to] the church at Rochester, through Countess Goda.’

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Canon tables, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 4r

‘Countess Goda’ can probably be identified with Edward the Confessor’s sister, called Godgifu or Gode. Although she was the daughter of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, little is known about Godgifu herself. Like her brothers, she probably spent some time in exile on the Continent in the years before and after her father’s death in 1016. At some point, she married Drogo (sometimes spelled Dreux), count of Vexin, with whom she had three sons, including Walter (or Gautier) of Vexin and Ralph the Timid, Count of Hereford, who accompanied his uncle Edward the Confessor to England and supported Edward throughout his reign. When Drogo died in 1035, Godgifu married Eustace II, count of Boulogne. It is not known when Godgifu died: some scholars suggest she predeceased her brother Edward the Confessor. She should not be confused with her contemporary who was also called Lady Godgifu—or Lady Godiva—who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest a toll imposed by her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia. (At least, that is what the 13th-century chronicler Roger of Wendover claimed.)

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Pater Noster, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 23v

While Godgifu left England, her manuscript did not, or at least not permanently. The book was in an Anglo-Norman environment by the end of the 11th-century, when an ‘Exultet’ with musical notation was added to the opening pages. Although the text is written in a style associated with English scribes, musicologists have suggested that the music represents the Norman version of the melody.

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Exultet with musical notation, England (Canterbury?), late 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 7v

The book may have stayed with one of Godgifu’s former manors. After Godgifu’s manor of Lambeth was given to Rochester Cathedral by William Rufus, the book may have been taken to the Cathedral, where it was recorded in the list of books copied or acquired by Alexander, the precentor, soon after 1201.

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Detail of a library inscription, England (Rochester), c. 1201, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

Although little is known about Godgifu today, her name evidently meant something to the 13th-century member of the Rochester community who chose to inscribe it. And while librarians never encourage writing in books, scholars are indebted to this anonymous scribe for giving us a glimpse into the world of Godgifu.

~Alison Hudson

23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

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Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history. 

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Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v

The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Æthelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).

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Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v

In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities. 

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Detail of a list of benefactors including ‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Æthelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r

In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.

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Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r

Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.

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Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v

Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a  fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).

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Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).

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Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r

These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.

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Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r

These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.

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Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from  Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.

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Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Æthelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.

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Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v

Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.

~Alison Hudson

02 April 2016

A Calendar Page for April 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 April from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

Spring is well underway in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for April.

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Detail of miniatures of a man gathering leaves and the zodiac sign Taurus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

At the bottom of the first folio is the standard (for this manuscript) two-part miniature.  On the left, a man is carrying a leafy young tree past a flowing river, having presumably just trimmed the branches from the stump before him.  He is well dressed for a labourer, wearing a fur-lined surcoat and carrying a long dagger on his belt.  To his right is a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus, enjoying a lie-down in the sun.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Venus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r

The marginal roundel at the right, however, displays the true central figure for the month of April – Venus, the goddess of love.   The accompanying verses tell us that April was dedicated to Venus by the pagans, because Venus (the planet) is a ‘hot and moist and drenched planet’, much like the month of April. 

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Calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v

The emphasis on Venus and April continues on the following folio.  Alongside the conclusion of April’s saints’ days are two roundels relating to the goddess.  On the middle left is a scene of the abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) in a cart drawn by two horses.  According to mythology this abduction was ultimately instigated by Venus, who envied the young girl’s beauty and ordered her son, Eros, to loose his arrows so that all would be smitten with love for her, leading ultimately to Proserpina being carried down into the depths of Hades.

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Detail of marginal roundels of the abduction of Proserpina and a flower festival, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v

The bottom roundel shows a more genial scene, illustrating, as the rubrics tell us, ‘how in April the pagans had a festival for the goddess of flowers.’

-  Sarah J Biggs

01 April 2016

Fool’s Paradise

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It’s that time of the year when lambs frolic in the fields, British summertime begins, and people play practical jokes on their friends. Of course, the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team has never succumbed to the temptation of perpetrating an April Fool. All of our stories published on this most auspicious day have been 100% genuine like, um, the discovery of the unicorn cookbook, the one about the Loch Ness Monster, and the time we spotted a spaceship in a medieval Book of Hours.

Jester     Monkey

(Left) Detail of a miniature of a fool, from Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 266r (Right) Detail of a miniature with a jester, from Laurent de Premierfait’s translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes), Bruges, c. 1479-80, Royal MS 14 E V, f. 5r

Here are some amusing facts about medieval fools and jesters with which to impress your friends. How many of these did you already know?

1. The origins of the April Fool are lost in the mists of time. It has recently been suggested that the first April Fool’s joke may have been played by Gaston Le Faux (his name translates as ‘the False’), a 13th-century French troubadour. Gaston is reputed to have disguised himself as a fish and hidden under a platter at a banquet, in order to impress the ladies. The reaction of the onlookers is undocumented, as is Gaston’s own fate, but to this day the French still cry “poisson” whenever they play a practical joke on April Fool’s Day.

2. Modern stereotypes about medieval 'fools’ and ‘jesters’ are often derived from playwrights and novelists such as William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo (who notably imagined the ‘Feast of Fools’ in his Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Touchstone

Kenneth Wicksteed as Touchstone in Shakespeare's As You Like It (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1932)

3. The medieval entertainers we know as ‘jesters’ were mostly storytellers, minstrels and musicians. Chaucer mentions ‘All manner of minstrales, And jestours, that tellen tales’ in his House of Fame.

Juggler    Musician

(Left) Detail of a juggler representing the third musical mode, from Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, c. 1075-1125, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v (Right) Detail of a musician representing the second musical mode, Harley MS 4951, f. 297v.

4. In medieval Denmark, people often dressed as trees and bushes to ward off madmen and evil spirits on April Fool's Day.

5. Depictions of fools are often found in illustrated Psalters, inspired by the story of King David and the fool. This tale appears in the first Old Testament book of Samuel and describes the mistakes of the ‘foolish’ rich man Nabal, who refused to give provisions to David and his men, and was later struck down by the Lord for his folly.

David & fool

Detail of the historiated initial 'D'with David and a fool at the beginning of Psalm 52, from the Rutland Psalter, London?, c. 1250, Add MS 62925, f. 56r

6. Not everybody likes April Fool jokes. In 1569, the Archbishop of Prague preached a sermon at St Vitus Cathedral, denouncing clowns and other pranksters as 'weasels, vipers, and worse than moles'. He was subsequently pelted by his congregation with tomatoes and rotten food, before being escorted back to his palace by the bodyguard of the King of Bohemia.

Star-Nosed-Mole

A star-nosed mole, the unintentional target of the Archbishop of Prague's vitriol

7. The most famous early modern image of a fool is found in the Psalter of Henry VIII at the British Library, at the beginning of Psalm 52. This shows King Henry himself, styled as King David, and his fool, Will Sommers, as Nabal.

  Henry

Miniature of David and the Fool, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, England (London), c. 1540-1541, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v

No doubt, Will Sommers and other jesters and fools would be smiling proudly at all the tricks played throughout the world today.

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Historiated initial with a fool, from the Great Bible, London, c. 1400-25, Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 148r

Dixit

Detail of the historiated initial 'D'(ixit) with David and a fool at the beginning of Psalm 52, from the Howard Psalter, East Anglia, c. 1308-40, Arundel MS 83 , f. 40v 

Pig

Drawing of a pig playing bagpipes, a jester showing his genitals, a man blowing a flute or pipe, and various hybrid creatures, from Pseudo-Aristotle, De caelo, De anima, England, 1487, Sloane MS 748, f. 82v 

~ The Medieval Manuscripts Team