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572 posts categorized "Medieval"

07 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

01 June 2016

A Calendar Page for June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-  Sarah J Biggs 

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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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.

 

10 May 2016

Florimont, Flower of the World, Grandfather of Alexander the Great

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The Cycle of Alexander the Great, a group of stories surrounding the great hero of antiquity, is dealt with at length in H.L.D. Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum, along with other legends with classical origins: Apollonius of Tyre, The Destruction of Jerusalem and The Prophecy of the Tenth Sybil. Some of our most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Roman d’Alexandre and the Histoire Ancienne, containing the legends of Alexander the Great, have been fully digitised, including Additional MS 15268, produced in Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 13th century.

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The Amazons surrendering to Alexander on his throne, Histoire Universelle, Acre, late 13th-century, Additional MS 15268, f. 203r

Also digitised are Add MS 19669, Royal MS 20 D I, Royal MS 19 D I and perhaps the most famous of our Alexander manuscripts, Royal MS 20 B XX, which featured in our very popular blogpost Lolcats of the Middle Ages. The young Alexander is often depicted with his father, Philip II of Macedonia, accompanying him on his campaigns.

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Philip and Alexander discussing envoys; Philip and Alexander setting out against Armenia; Pausanias and others marching against Philip, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 7v-8r

No earlier forebears are mentioned. In time, though, a popular hero like Alexander needed to have more than one illustrious ancestor, and so a prequel involving a fearless hero, Florimont, his paternal grandfather, came to light.

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The Village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009

Aimon de Varennes, a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France, claims to have unearthed the tale of Florimont during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria) in the late 12th century. He may have in fact travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive, though he retains certain ‘Greek’ words, which in fact demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out at the beginning of the text in Harley MS 4487, one of the manuscripts of the text in the British Library:

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement         Aymon conceived the romance well

(f. 3r: column 1, lines 8-9)

Il lavoit en grece veue                                           He had seen it in Greece

……..

A Phelippole la trova                                            He found it in Philippolis

A chastillon len aporta                                         Brought it to Chatillon

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     As he had learned it

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                 He changed it from Latin into Romance

(lines 31-36)

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Opening folio with author’s name and 14th century ownership inscription, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' in the lower margin, Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

The romance of Florimont is in two parts, beginning with the story of the original King Philip I of Macedonia, whose daughter and heiress, Romadanaple married Florimont (‘flower of the world’), son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania. Their son, Philip II, married Olympias and was father to Alexander the Great.

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Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, with two eagles on the roof of the palace (foretelling Alexander's two empires in Europe and Asia), Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1485 – 1490, Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r

In some versions of the legend, Nectanebus, the last pharaoh, is involved in Alexander’s conception, as depicted in this miniature from a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose.

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The conception of Alexander, with Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, flying over Queen Olympias and King Philip in bed, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, N. or Netherlands, S., 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A V, f. 6r 

The second part of the story tells of Florimont’s victory over the monster terrorising his father’s kingdom and his love for the enchantress of the Isle of Celée, which causes him to reject his birth-right and travel to Albania under the name Pauvre Perdu (Poor lost boy). We do not have an image of Florimont, but here is one of his grandson, Alexander, fighting monsters:

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Alexander fighting monsters, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 35v

He defeats Camdiobras, king of Hungary, enemy of Mataquas of Albania, and is awarded the hand of his daughter, Romadanaple, together with his lands, which he unites with his own.

Ward’s Catalogue lists two manuscripts of the Romance of Florimont in the British Library. Both have recently been digitised, as, although they are not illustrated, they are important early copies of the text and contain examples of the south-eastern dialect of French. The earliest of the two manuscripts, Harley MS 4487, is dated to 1295 in the scribal colophon and on the previous page the author states that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage

(f. 85v: column 2, lines 13 and 14)

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The penultimate folio of Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 85v

The later Harley MS 3983 is written in a neat Gothic cursive of the early 14th century with decorated initials and flourishes in the upper margin.

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Text page from Florimont with decorated initials at ‘A lostel le povre perdu’ and ‘Romanadaple la pucelle’, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 34r

Florimont is followed by a French minstrel’s chronicle known as the Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims that begins with the conquest of Antioch by Godefroi de Bouillon and ends with the death of the eldest son of St Louis, King of France, in 1260, including a fable relating to Ysengrin the wolf and Renard the Fox. The manuscript is dated to 1323 in the scribal colophon at the end of the Florimont text.

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Last folio with colophon, Florimont, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 81v

There are close to 20 surviving manuscripts of Florimont including several in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with miniatures illustrating the text.

~Chantry Westwell

06 May 2016

The Scottish Play and the Real Macbeth

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Here at the British Library (writes Julian Harrison) we look after everything from early papyri to the state papers of Tudor monarchs. Our Printed Books colleagues care for no fewer than 5 copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, 2 of which are currently on display in London (Shakespeare in Ten Acts). And that brings us to the topic of today's blogpost: how does the historical Macbeth differ from his portrayal for the stage by William Shakespeare?

King and Pilgrim

Let's start with what we know about the real, historical Macbeth. The most succinct account is found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Professor Dauvit Broun (available to subscribers online), which I summarise here. Macbeth became king of Moray in 1032 when his cousin, Gille Comgáin mac Maíl Brigte, was burnt with 50 of his followers, possibly at Macbeth's instigation. Gille Comgáin had killed Macbeth's father in 1020; intriguingly, Macbeth then married Gille Comgáin's widow, Gruoch (the real Lady Macbeth). In 1040, Duncan I, king of Scots, led a campaign against Moray, culminating in Duncan's death in battle against Macbeth, probably at Pitgaveny near Elgin. As a result, Macbeth then became king of Scots. Macbeth was the first reigning Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, in 1050, where he ‘scattered money like seed to the poor’; and in 1052 he was the first to take Norman knights into his own service. However, in 1054 he was challenged by Malcolm Canmore, Duncan I's now adult son, with the support of a Northumbrian army. A bloody battle took place on 27 July, probably at Dunsinane, after which Macbeth was forced to concede land to Malcolm. Malcolm then challenged Macbeth a second time, and he killed him on 15 August 1057 at Lumphanan in Mar. Macbeth was succeeded as king by his stepson, Lulach, whose father, Gille Comgáin, had been killed by Macbeth.

Mya Gosling Macbeth

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, by the utterly brilliant Mya Gosling (@GoodTickleBrain)

The Chronicle of Melrose

One of the earliest narrative accounts of the life of Macbeth is found in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, preserved uniquely in a manuscript at the British Library (and available on our Digitised Manuscripts site). This account was copied around 1174, but it is based on older source material. The Melrose Chronicle has intrigued me for many years (together with Dauvit Broun I found a new fragment of it at the British Library, and our account of the manuscript was published by the Scottish History Society in 2007). The historical Macbeth is mentioned a handful of times in this Melrose text. In 1039 (the chronology is slightly astray) he is said to have usurped the throne upon the death of King Duncan; in 1050 he visited Rome, where he distributed alms; finally, in 1054, Siward, earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland at the behest of Edward of Confessor, defeated Macbeth in battle (whereupon Macbeth fled), and installed Malcolm in his place. No mention of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep. It's all rather disappointing, if you've been brought up on a diet of Shakespeare.

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References to Macbeth in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Faustina B IX, ff. 12v, 13r, 13v): (a) his succession to the throne in 1039; (b) his pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; (c) his defeat in battle in 1054.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

What, then, do we know about Shakespeare's Macbeth? The play was first printed in the First Folio (1623), published 7 years after its author's death. Indeed, Macbeth is one of several Shakespearean plays whose text would probably be unknown but for the First Folio: other plays published for the first time in 1623 include The TempestTwelfth Night and Julius Caesar. We suspect, however, that Macbeth was written in the early years of the reign of King James I of England (1603–25). James Shapiro has recently argued that it contains echoes of the infamous Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605 (1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber & Faber, 2015). James I was patron of the King's Men, Shakespeare's acting troupe, and he had a particular interest in demonology and witchcraft, which underpin Shakespeare's play.

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The First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare, in which Macbeth was printed for the first time (London, British Library, C.39.k.15)

The Second Murderer's Bowler Hat

The first recorded performance of what is probably Macbeth took place in London in 1611. Over the next 400 years, many leading actors have taken on the rôles of Macbeth and his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, among them Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and, most recently, Michael Fassbender. A stand-out production is often said to be that directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn (1976), starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. But two of the most significant versions of Macbeth involved Laurence Olivier: first, the Birmingham Rep production in modern-dress at the Court Theatre in London in 1928 (one member of the audience commented on the Second Murderer's Bowler Hat); and secondly, opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955.

Garrick-club-portrait-of-g0743    Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth 1955

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, by George Henry Harlow (1814), copyright Garrick Club, currently on display at the British Library; photograph of Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth by Angus McBean, currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Humming A Gaelic Song

You can see artefacts from the Olivier/Leigh production of Macbeth at the British Library (until 6 September 2016) and at the Library of Birmingham (until 3 September). Contemporary critics were quietly reserved about Vivien Leigh's seductive performance as Lady Macbeth ('more viper than anaconda', wrote Kenneth Tynan), but over time they have revised their opinions, and count it among her finest rôles. Her beautiful, green silk dress and embroidered gown for the part is on display in London, having been kindly loaned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, some of Angus McBean's photographs of Olivier and Leigh are on show in the Library of Birmingham's Our Shakespeare exhibition (organised jointly with the British Library). Also in Birmingham are other items from the British Library's Olivier archive relating to his proposed follow-up film of Macbeth, possibly the greatest Shakespeare film never made. These include Laurence Olivier's own annotated screenplay for the film. I am especially fond of the direction when the witches appear: ‘Macbeth is seen to stop. We CUT to him incredulously listening to the prophesies, which seem to emanate from the hills. Banquo rides gently on oblivious of these happenings, humming a Gaelic song.'

Olivier's annotated screenplay for Macbeth

Two pages from Laurence Olivier's annotated screenplay for his never-made film of Macbeth (London, British Library, Add MS 80508), currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Separating Truth from Fiction

So let's recount: which facts does William Shakespeare get right in The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • According to Shakespeare, Macbeth stabs to death the sleeping Duncan, who is a guest at Macbeth's castle? Wrong, Duncan dies in battle against Macbeth.
  • Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Wrong again, Macbeth is King of Moray (these false titles originated with Hector Boece, whose account was copied in turn in Ralph Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth).
  • An English army defeats Macbeth at Dunsinane, and he is killed by Macduff. Third time unlucky, alas. There was a battle at Dunsinane, in 1054, but Macbeth remained king for a further 3 years. One fact that Shakespeare does get 'right' is the death of the 'young Siward' during the Northumbrian invasion: this refers to the death of Osbeorn, son of Earl Siward, at the hands of the Scots, though doubtless not in single combat fighting Macbeth.

But then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?! Which version of Macbeth do you prefer, the historical alms-giver or the blood-thirsty regicide?

You can comment on this post below or via the @BLMedieval Twitter feed

 

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

 

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