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20 January 2017

The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book

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What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Additional MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.

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No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.

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Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r

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Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r

Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at the abbey in Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.

Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.

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It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional MS 24199, f. 8r

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Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r

 

La Psychomachia fut composée au 5ème siècle par le poète Prudence. Ce poème épique met en scène la bataille allégorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrôle de l’âme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’âme” fut largement diffusé tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.

Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservés à la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiés en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10ème et 11ème siècles, et présentent une décoration comparable à celles des bandes dessinées actuelles. Chaque scène encadrée illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pédagogique de ces illustrations suggère que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisés dans les écoles monastiques. Après l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message délivré n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautés monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.

Alison Ray

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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19 January 2017

Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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The British Library is delighted to be a participant in this year's ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Throughout the Festival, from 19 to 23 January, a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, will be on display at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur. The Festival itself was inaugurated by Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje, who was one of the first to view the facsimile.

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Children viewing the facsimile of Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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Claire Breay (The British Library) showing the facsimile of Magna Carta to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje

Then, on Saturday 21 January, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is holding a panel discussion entitled ‘Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice’. The five speakers — writer and lawyer Chintan Chandrachud, historian David Carpenter, barrister Helena Kennedy, biographer and historian Patrick French and curator Claire Breay — will explore the history, impact and global legacy of the 4,000 words of Latin issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The British Library is represented at the Festival by Claire Breay (Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts), who will be discussing with Professor David Carpenter (King's College London) the medieval history of Magna Carta, and how the Library's major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, explored both the medieval story of Magna Carta and how it came to be such a famous international symbol of rights and liberties.

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The crowd at the inauguration ceremony of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The loan of the Magna Carta facsimile is part of an ambitious British Library programme of engagement with India, which will also see the loan of one of the Library’s copies of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, to CSMVS Museum in Mumbai from 20 January to 8 March. The programme also includes a major project to digitise thousands of Indian printed books held by the Library: the first phase of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ aims to digitise and make available online 4,000 printed books in Bengali, unlocking their riches to researchers and a wider public than ever before.

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Outside the room where the facsimile of Magna Carta is on display at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Claire Breay

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09 January 2017

Medieval Spin-Offs of the Roman de la Rose

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Over the past year, many critics have noted the dominance of 'spin-offs', new releases which are sequels to or take place in the same imaginary worlds as already-popular blockbusters. But popular spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon. Take the example of 'satellite texts' of the Roman de la Roseone of the most famous poems in the French language. The medieval equivalent of a best-seller, it survives in more than 300 manuscript copies, and was composed in two sections, written decades apart: the first part was written by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and it was continued by Jean de Meun 40 years later. In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose was copied with other texts attributed to Jean de Meun, which are often described as 'satellite' or spin-off texts. Although the Roman de la Rose tends to overshadow some of these other texts, they were nevertheless popular in the Middle Ages.

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Image of Jean de Meun, from a copy of the Roman de la Rose,  Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340–1350: Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 35v.

The Testament

In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose is followed by a text entitled the Testament de maistre Jehan de Meun. It acts as a morally edifying conclusion to the famous allegorical poem, opening with the lines:

‘'Li peres et li filz et li sains esperis/ Un dieu en trois personnes adoures et cheris'.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit/God in three persons, loved and adored

Attributed to Jean de Meun, the Testament was composed at the end of the 13th century and comprises 544 alexandrine quatrains. The author explains to the reader that he wants to apologize for the works he wrote during his youth just to achieve success: is this remorse a reference to Meun’s work on the Roman de la Rose? Some of Jean de Meun’s leitmotivs are present in this poem, especially his criticism of women and mendicants.

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A miniature in grisaille of the Trinity with a finely-worked coloured background, from the Testament, 1380–1390: Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 143r.

The Testament is described by its author as a moral treatise inspired by God and charity. It was elaborated as a spiritual journey for the discovery of Truth and Good in which the author confesses to the reader his awareness of the vanity and finite nature of human life. The poem focuses on the themes of death and on the utility of prayers to the dead as well as the living.

The construction of the poem is inspired by disputation, the exercise commonly practised in medieval universities. The author combines the rigour of university culture with the traditions of vernacular literature. The success of the Testament was significant, probably due to its attribution to de Meun. It was widely disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, though rarely alone: its transmission was closely linked to that of the Roman de la Rose, especially during the 14th century.

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The Trinity with a full bar border with zoomorphic decoration, the Testament attributed to Jean de Meun, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 145r.

The Codicille

The Testament is often accompanied by two other texts attributed to Jean de Meun: the Codicille or ‘petit Codicille’ and the ‘Grant Codicille’, also known as the Sept articles de foi. The ‘petit Codicille’ is sometimes considered to be an appendix to the Testament and is sometimes even entitled ‘petit Testament’. It includes 88 lines of eight syllables per line. Composed at the end of the 13th century, it takes the form of a prayer, beginning:

‘Dieux ait l’ame des trespasses/ Car des biens qu’ilz ont amasses/ Dont ils norent oncques assez’.  

God keep the Soul of the dead/ because of the goods they amassed/ they did not get never enough of these.

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Framed initial in colours on gold and blue grounds with partial foliate border with rinceaux,  the Codicille, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 143v.

The Sept articles de foi

The final bestseller attributed to Jean de Meun is the Sept articles de foi, also called Trésor de la foy or, confusingly, just Codicille (see, for example, ’Cy commence le codicille maistre Jehan de Meun': Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r). However, although for a long time this work was attributed to Jean de Meun, it has now been established that it was composed by Jean Chapuis around 1300.

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Tinted drawing in colours showing the Trinity, 1st half of the 15th century, the Sept articles de foi: Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r.

This is a devotional and eschatological poem advocating contempt for the world and the necessity to praise God, Christ and the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the soul. It deals with the symbolic number seven such as the seven virtues and the seven liberal arts in opposition to the seven deadly sins.

Although it is now accepted that Meun did not write this poem, in 1401 this poem was at the centre of an attempt to clear Jean de Meun’s reputation in a tumultuous debate involving Christine de Pizan. One of Jean de Meun’s defenders, Gontier Col, secretary to Charles VI, sent her a copy of the Sept articles de foi to try to persuade her to renounce her condemnation of Jean de Meun. In response, Christine de Pizan, with irony, denounced people who attributed any works to Jean de Meun. Her answer shows that the poem’s attribution to Meun was already disputed at the beginning of the 15th century.

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Detail of Jean de Meun writing the opening words of this poem:
Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 69v.

The above three texts gained popular success during the 14th and 15th centuries, partly because of their close association with the Roman de la Rose and Jean de Meun, and because they seemed to show the presumed author’s repentance. It is tempting to draw parallels with modern spin-offs, which are often framed as responses to earlier criticisms of franchises and whose popularity is sometimes attributed to their association with other well-known subjects and creators. But the satellites of the Roman de la Rose are also worth analysing as examples of the popularity of devotional literature aimed mainly at lay people.

Laure Miolo

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01 January 2017

A Calendar for January 2017

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Every year we feature a different calendar on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. This year is no exception: the seventh calendar in our series is the fabulous Additional MS 36684, a Book of Hours of the Use of Saint-Omer. This Book of Hours is a delightfully unique manuscript (as explored in our previous blogposts: Apes Pulling Shapes and Something for Everyone), sure to see us through 2017 in style.  It is quite different to last year’s Bedford Hours and we’re looking forward to highlighting the amusingly idiosyncratic decorative elements in the calendar. You can read more about calendars in general in our introduction to our first calendar of the year, back in 2011.

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Calendar pages for January, Additional MS 36684, ff. 1v–2r

Additional MS 36684 was created in approximately 1320 in north west France, most likely in Saint-Omer or Thérouanne. We know that the manuscript was probably made in this area because of entries in the calendar, which often included the feast days of local saints. In this case, the calendar displays the dedication of St Omer (‘Sancti audomari') on his feast day, 17 October.

Fig 2_add_ms_36684_f011r St Omer dedication

Dedication of St Omer, detail of calendar page for October, Additional MS 36684, f. 11r

This Book of Hours is distinctive for its imaginative decoration, which is extremely diverse; there are hardly any repeated figures, and hybrid animal-humans and fantastic beasts adorn the decorative borders on each folio. The human figures are particularly distinctive for the bright orangey-pink painted circles on their cheeks and marking their mouths.

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Hybrid beasts, detail of January calendar page, Additional MS 36684, f. 1v

The calendar is placed at the beginning of the manuscript, taking up the first thirteen folios. Each month is given two folios: the verso of one and the recto of the next. Both are highly decorated, with a border incorporating creative beasts and creatures and two different miniatures, one displaying the zodiac sign and the other the labour of the month, which is the seasonal activity associated with that month. Every month begins with a large gilded double-initial ‘KL’, for ‘Kalendarius’.

The folios for January, which fall on f. 1 verso and f. 2 recto, begin with the entries of saints, and there are even small faces drawn into the gilded letters at the start of some of the names.

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Faces in initials, detail of January calendar page, Additional MS 36684, f. 1v

The illustration of January’s labour of the month depicts the typical activity of feasting, but with the addition of the two-faced Roman god Janus. Janus was traditionally thought to be the namesake of the month, although it is more likely it was named for the goddess Juno instead. He is pictured inside a tiny castle against a gold backdrop.

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Janus feasting, detail of January Calendar page, Additional MS 36684, f. 1v

The miniature on the facing folio is the zodiac sign associated with January, Aquarius, drawn as a nude male figure holding a jug of water. Aquarius is usually pouring the water out from the jug (compare it to the Bedford Hours version) but has here apparently already emptied it. An architectural border frames the outdoor scene (notice the green grass!), but with the addition of two hybrid creatures – human heads topped by tall hats perched on the legs of what appears to be a large cat, tails curling through the legs to extend out into the margin.

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Aquarius, detail of January calendar page, Additional MS 36684, f. 2r

We could go on about the different faces in these pages, but we’ll leave it to you – how many animals/hybrid figures can you spot?

Additional MS 36684 can be viewed online in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts. The second half of the manuscript is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, as MS M. 754, which you can see here. Check back on 1 February for the next calendar page!

Taylor McCall
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30 December 2016

Christmas Quiz: The Answers

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Did you have fun trying to answer our end-of-the-year quiz? Did some of the questions stump you? Fear not, because the answers are below. Well done, everyone, who attempted to answer them!

Holiday Traditions

Question 1: Which manuscript — which provided our calendar pages this year — was a Christmas gift for a young King Henry VI?

Answer: The Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850)

Question 2: Christmas was not the usual occasion for exchanging gifts in elite circles in western Europe. 12-year-old Princess Elizabeth, aged 12, made a prayerbook (as in, she translated all the prayers, copied them out, and even embroidered the binding) to give to her father, King Henry VIII, on which day?

Answer: New Year’s Day. The prayerbook (Royal MS 7 D X) is mentioned in this blogpost.

Question 3: The Royal Prayerbook (Royal MS 2 A XX) includes the first written reference to which creatures, in Old English literature were associated with mental illness, demons and beauty.

Answer: Elves

Question 4: Many people now use air travel over the holidays. But who was the first recorded Englishman to fly?

Answer: Eilmer/Æthelmaer of Malmesbury

Food and Drink

Question 5: Next time you drink hot chocolate, which manuscript collector and physician should you thank for popularising it in Britain?

Answer: Sir Hans Sloane

Question 6: Which manuscript features a recipe for a ‘tostee’?

Answer: The Forme of Cury

Picture Round

Picture 1

Question 7: This image of the Nativity comes from Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 134r, a Bible historiale probably made for which future French king who would later build the Louvre’s library?

Answer: Charles V

Picture 2

Question 8: This busier Nativity scene can be found in which Psalter, currently on display in New York?

Answer: The Melisende Psalter (Egerton MS 1139)

Picture 3

Question 9: The above scenes of shepherds and wise men are part of which Psalter, currently on show in the V&A’s Opus Anglicanum exhibition?

Answer: The Grandisson Psalter (Add MS 21926)

Planning for the Year Ahead

Question 10: Hunters wanting to catch a unicorn would need to bring what with them, according to medieval bestiaries.

Answer: A maiden/virgin http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/12/fantastic-beasts-at-the-british-library.html

Question 11: According to Petrus Alfonsi and his French translators, how can you test if someone is a true friend?

Answer: If they help you hide something which they believe is a dead body.

Question 12: Why is the Feast of St Matthias sometimes celebrated twice?

Answer: In leap years, it is celebrated on both 29 February and 24 February.

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27 December 2016

Christmas Quiz 2016

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How well have you been following our Medieval Manuscripts Blog this year? Find out with our end-of-the-year quiz! We will post the answers in a few days: good luck everyone!

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Donatus, trying to solve our Christmas Quiz (Arundel MS 43, f. 80v)

Holiday Traditions

  1. Which manuscript — which provided our calendar pages this year — was a Christmas gift for a young King Henry VI?
  2. Christmas was not the usual occasion for exchanging gifts in elite circles in western Europe. Princess Elizabeth, aged 12, made a prayerbook (as in, she translated all the prayers, copied them out, and even embroidered the binding) to give to her father, King Henry VIII, on which day?
  3. The Royal Prayerbook (Royal MS 2 A XX) includes the first written reference to which creatures, in Old English literature associated with mental illness, demons, and beauty.
  4. Many people now use air travel over the holidays. But who was the first recorded Englishman to fly?

Food and Drink

  1. Next time you drink hot chocolate, which manuscript collector and physician should you thank for popularising it in Britain?
  2. Which manuscript features a recipe for a ‘tostee’?

Picture Round

Picture 1

  1. This image of the Nativity comes from Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 134r, a Bible historiale probably made for which future French king who would later build the Louvre’s library?

Picture 2

8. This busier Nativity scene can be found in which Psalter, currently on display in New York?

Picture 3

9. The above scenes of shepherds and wise men are part of which Psalter, currently on show in the V&A’s Opus Anglicanum exhibition?

Planning for the Year Ahead

  1. Hunters wanting to catch a unicorn would need to bring what with them, according to medieval bestiaries.
  2. According to Petrus Alfonsi and his French translators, how can you test if someone is a true friend?
  3. Why is the Feast of St Matthias sometimes celebrated twice?

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24 December 2016

Christmas Coronations

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Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was a season of festivities and celebrations, just as it is today. 25 December was certainly a high point of this festive season, beginning the twelve days of Christmas which would last until Epiphany. On three occasions in the early medieval period, the Christmas Day celebrations may have been more extravagant than usual: on Christmas Day in 800, 855 and 1066, merrymakers also celebrated the coronations of the very first Holy Roman Emperor and two English kings with interesting legacies.

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Blessing for Christmas Day in the 'Anderson Pontifical': British Library Additional MS 57337, f. 104r.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Rome. This was a momentous occasion in the Christian West, where Imperial authority had ceased to be acknowledged after the fall of the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. By the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne’s military success had left in him control of a large part of medieval Europe and he had acquired a special relationship with the Pope. By crowning Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Leo III was acknowledging Charlemagne’s secular authority and his role as defender of the Christian faith throughout Western Christendom.

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne being crowned emperor, in the second book of Charlemagne's life in Les Grandes Chroniques de France: British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 141v.

Another early medieval king to have supposedly been crowned on Christmas day is King Edmund of East Anglia, who reigned from 855 until his death in 869. Very little is known about Edmund'ss early life, as no contemporary written records survive from his reign. The first-known record focuses more on the circumstances of Edmund's death than his achievements in life. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ described how Edmund was killed by the Great Heathen Army of Danes which had recently attacked other parts of Anglo-Saxon England. This is the same Great Heathen Army which was fought off by Alfred the Great of Wessex over the next decade.

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Miniature of Edmund tied to a tree and being shot full of arrows by two Scandinavians: British Library Harley MS 4826, f. 4r.

According to tradition, Edmund died during battle with the Danes after he refused their demands to renounce his Christian faith. This refusal transformed Edmund into a martyr. Over the following two centuries, a popular cult developed around his memory and was centred on the church where his remains were buried. The town which grew around this church was so associated with the cult of St Edmund that it took on his name, becoming the modern-day  Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. In the 10th century, the monks of Ramsey Abbey commissioned Abbo of Fleury to write a Latin account of the saint’s life and early cult. This text was later translated into Old English by the Anglo-Saxon, Ælfric of Eynsham, a well-known writer of many old English saint’s Lives, homilies and biblical commentaries. Much of what is now known about Edmund's early life, including his coronation on Christmas Day, comes from these texts written up to 200 years after his death. It is therefore uncertain where Edmund was indeed crowned on Christmas Day, or whether his later hagiographers deemed this an appropriate date for the coronation of a king who would later be canonised.

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Beginning of the Life of Edmund the Martyr in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints: British Library Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 203r.

The crowning glory in our series of early medieval Christmas coronations is that of William the Conqueror, who was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. William’s coronation marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and the beginning of the Norman dynasty.

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Detail of a roundel of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340–1342: British Library Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5.

After his coronation, William set about establishing his authority in his new kingdom. As part of this process, he commissioned an abbey to be built upon the site of the Battle of Hastings. According to 12th-century sources, before the battle, William had sworn to build the abbey in order to commemorate and pray for those who died in combat. A detailed account of this foundation story was written at Battle in the 12th century. The page below is the beginning of an account of the life of William the Conqueror, and depicts William enthroned.

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Historiated initial with William the Conqueror: British Library Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22v.

It is extremely likely that these kings, or the people who wrote their legends, consciously chose to the crowned on Christmas Day. Those who celebrated their coronations on 25 December would also be celebrating the birth of Christ, the saviour and King of Kings. This would have added a sense of Divine favour to their rule, and secured their claim to that particular title. The sacred significance of this would not have been lost on the audience of these ceremonies, those who recorded them, and those who read about them throughout history.

Becky Lawton

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23 December 2016

The Medieval Origins of the Christmas Carol

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Most people today think of a carol as any song or hymn related to Christmas. In its origins, it is something both more and less specific than this. It is derived from the Old French word carole, referring to a round of dancers, singing and holding hands. What they sung was not limited to Christmas music, and musicologists often identify a refrain repeated after each stanza as the key feature of an early carol. Not all medieval carols were overtly religious, but most focused on the Virgin Mary or the winter holy days. The association with the season has been magnified over time, and it now less frequently refers to a specific musical form. So how does a carol get from a medieval manuscript to singers on a street corner, buskers on public transport, or loudspeakers in a shopping centre?

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Veni redemptor gentium: Cotton MS Vespasian D XII, f. 34v.

The oldest text still sung today that we would now call a Christmas carol is probably ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, by Ambrose (c. 340–397). Ambrose was once thought to have invented the hymn, although we now know that the form predates him. The history of Veni redemptor is typical of how medieval works become modern popular Christmas carols. In the Middle Ages, it was typically sung to plainchant, and was one of the standard pieces used on Christmas Eve. It can be found in many manuscripts in the British Library, including several that are online, notably Cotton MS Vespasian D XII; Harley MS 2961; and Arundel MS 155. (The Cantus database and the book Early Latin Hymnaries are great starting points for finding such texts in manuscript.) The idea of Ambrose as the creator of the hymn became so popular during the Middle Ages that a large number of poems ended up being associated with him over time; this is one of the few attributions to survive the rigour of modern scholarship.

Veni redemptor gentium in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

‘Veni redemptor gentium’ in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

In the English world, Ambrose’s hymn largely disappeared after King Henry VIII’s split from Rome, but benefitted from a revival of interest in medieval culture in the 19th century. It gained new popularity as ‘Come, thou Redeemer of the earth’, one of several well-known translations by John Mason Neale (1818–66), who was particularly gifted in expressing the meaning of his originals and matching their metres. It is today sung to many different tunes, but is most commonly paired with the music for another medieval carol, ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ (‘Unto us a boy is born’), found in the Moosburg Gradual of 1355–60, as arranged by Michael Praetorius (for ‘Geborn ist Gottes Söhnelein’). What reaches our ears today is the combined contribution of about half a dozen people over time.

Prudentius’s Corde natus ex parentis in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r

Prudentius’s ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r.

Another contender for the oldest Christmas carol is ‘Corde natus ex parentis’, by Prudentius (348–c. 413), a Spanish lawyer who became a monk later in life. Like Ambrose’s hymn, it has gone through many layers of filtering and waves of popularity. One can hear it today in several different forms, most based on ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ (another of Neale’s creations) or ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ (by R. F. Davis). The music is usually taken from the Finnish/Swedish book Piae cantiones first published in 1582, compiled by Jacobus Finno, largely from medieval sources. Purists might think this ahistorical; but even in the Middle Ages, words could be sung to many tunes from wildly varying sources.

There are many other medieval texts that remain today widely recognizable Christmas carols. Angelus ad virginem (‘The angel to the virgin’), cited by the Miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is unusual in that it is still frequently sung by choirs, but almost always untranslated; the Middle English translation, ‘Gabriel, fram Heven-King’, is much more obscure. The British Library’s collections include many early carols that almost nobody today has heard of, such as King Henry VIII’s failed classic ‘Green groweth the holly’, found in Add MS 31922.

Henry VIII’s Green groweth the holly: Add. MS 31922, f. 37v.

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’: Add MS 31922, f. 37v.

There is far more to explore in the world of medieval carols in manuscript. Most of the British Library’s holdings can be explored through the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. Research into these sources can unearth forgotten classics; The New Oxford Book of Carols was especially successful in stretching what had become a stagnant musical repertoire in the 20th century. Medieval carols can remain successful today because they are inherently flexible, are far removed from today’s commercialism, and encourage the spontaneous combination of many different traditions.

Andrew Dunning

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