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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

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The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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14 February 2017

Love Me Do: Medieval Love Spells

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Valentine’s Day is all about love — mutual love and shared love. But what if love is unrequited or one-sided? The problem, as always, is not a new one. It was well known in ancient and medieval times alike, but different people had their own ways of dealing with it.

Some people simply believed in persuasion. Some nice words on a bench may break the ice and turn the lover’s heart in the desired direction. 'You can try this with men or women alike', as the caption of the image says.

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Detail from a herbal, Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane 4016, f. 44v

If this does not make a break-through, a picnic set up in an entertaining landscape of flowers, trees and a little brook might bring better results.

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Miniature of the duke of true love and his companions entertaining ladies, from the Book of the Queen, c. 1410–1414, France (Paris), Harley 4431, f. 145

You could even include some sport in these outdoor activities and win their hearts in a race. This is how Hippomenes won over Atalanta after beating her in an (actually unfair) running competition. He rolled golden apples in the girl’s way, slowing her down so that he could finally win and get her hand.

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Miniature of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, from Harley 4431, f. 128r

Others had completely different methods and, convinced about the power of their poetry and music, bravely revealed their feelings before their lovers. Orpheus did it in a live performance for Eurydice. It worked, melting the heart of Death himself who gave his dead wife back to him.

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Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v  

Others, probably less skilled in performing arts, preferred to do this in a less direct way and offered luxury editions of their poetry to their loved ones — enclosing their own burning hearts in the volumes.

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Detail from 49 Love Sonnets, Italy (Milan?), c. 1425–1475, King's 322, f. 1r

There were some, however, who did not deter even from violence and took what they wanted by force. They fought wars, battled kings and occupied cities, just like Menelaus did when his beloved Helena escaped from Sparta, starting the ten-year long Trojan War. The British Library does not endorse this approach! 

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Detail from a series of miniatures on the temptations of lovers, from Breviari d'Amour, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300-1325, Royal 19 C I, f. 204r

Sometimes, when the above methods have all proven useless, there was one final risky and dangerous method that only a few have ever tried: magic. The British Library houses an excellent collection of ancient love spells and charms from the first three centuries CE. Papyrus 121 (2), one of the largest extant scrolls in the collection, preserves a whole series of uncanny methods of gaining someone’s heart. Column 12 of this extraordinary papyrus, for example, has a special recipe that proved useful enough to be recorded and come down to us in the 21st century. It reads as follows:

Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of a demon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a hot bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words 'attract to me XY, whom XY bore, on this very day from this very hour, with a soul and a heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately.' The picture should be as depicted below.

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Detail of a love spell, from a collection of magical spells and charms, Egypt, 3rd century, Papyrus 121 (2)

Unfortunately the image to be used in the process was not copied in the papyrus, but other parts of the same document preserve similar images of demons with names written around them that can help us imagine what is needed here.

Papyrus 121 a

Papyrus 121 b

There is also a special charm to be used in the process that is supposed to guarantee its success but we decided not to replicate it here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Peter Toth

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12 February 2017

It's Caption Competition Time

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We recently announced the complete digitisation of an idiosyncratic, Middle Dutch natural encyclopedia and bestiary (that's a phrase we don't use very often). Given the range of vivid expressions and charming details in the images in this manuscript, we could not resist using it for one of our semi-regular caption competitions. So, put your thinking caps on: what might the two fellows pictured below be up to? Let us know in the comment section or on Twitter! We'll tweet and publish your best (and, occasionally, worst) suggestions!

Add MS 11390 caption

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10 February 2017

The Flower of Nature

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The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site has recently acquired some new residents, including unicorns, amorous elephants, humans and dragons. These can all be found in the recently digitised Der naturen bloeme or The Flower of Nature (Add MS 11390), a natural encyclopedia and bestiary in Middle Dutch verse.

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Add MS 11390, f. 22r

The manuscript is one of only eleven extant copies and contains 571 fantastic illustrations of the humans, quadrupeds, birds, sea creatures, fish, poisonous snakes, insects and crawling animals, common trees, spice trees and medicinal herbs. The text also discusses wells, gemstones and metals.

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Add MS 11390
, f. 23r

Be warned, however: this bestiary is not rated PG!

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Add MS 11390, f. 13r

The text of Der naturen bloeme was written around 1270 by the Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant (b. c. 1200, d. c. 1272) at the request of his patron, the somewhat appropriately-named Nicolaas van Cats. The British Library’s copy was probably made in the first quarter of the 14th century.

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Add MS 11390, f. 13v

In addition to its fantastic drawings, it also provides rare evidence of a medieval lending library. An oath, written on the last page, states that its borrower swears on the cross drawn next to the text that he or she will return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by a woman, in a 14th- or 15th-century hand, who identifies herself as 'abstetrix heifmoeder' ('obstetrix’ meaning midwife).

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Detail of an oath, Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Clarck Drieshen

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09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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On 21 June 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob in Bury St Edmunds was out to kill. Among their chosen targets was John Lakenheath, a monk at the abbey as well as keeper of the barony (custos baronie), making him responsible for collecting dues and fines for the abbey’s manors. His crime: putting the abbey’s archives in order after they had been sacked by the townspeople as long ago as 1327. With all the relevant documentation at hand, the abbey had been asserting its claims stridently.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

The book that made John so hated survives in the British Library as Harley MS 743, the ‘Lakenheath Register’. It is a calendar or directory of the documentary evidence held at the abbey in John’s time, showing its claim to properties, fees it was owed by tenants, and other legal privileges. It is not highly decorated, but it is full of energy, as reflected in the opening to John’s preface (translated from Harley MS 743, f. 3v):

After our monastery was destroyed by robbers and fire, and the registers of the abbots and other muniments were stolen stealthily without return, the thin ears of corn behind the backs of the reapers had hardly remained from such an abundant harvest of evidence for the church. Because of this, I, brother John Lakenheath, have arranged from various registers a kind of calendar, whatever the circumstances. In it, I have laid out in alphabetical order the names of certain manors about which I learnt any documentary evidence. By this, the evidence may more openly be accessible to future generations, that within and outside their liberty, the abbot and convent may have the power to proclaim their royal rights and other liberties more confidently. I ask the reader to mark this work in kindness rather than presumption.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John goes on to lay out his organisational scheme. Writing in 1379, tensions were already growing, and he may have already realised the danger he was in as he was compiling his register. He ends on an ominous note: ‘If for certain reasons I am unable to complete something noted above, may the reader accept the will for the deed, and may he ask the omnipotent to have mercy on the soul of the compiler.’ The book allows the reader to look up a particular estate, and find all the documents associated with it, going back to the day of William the Conqueror. In a society that was placing an ever-increasing value on written over oral evidence, one can easily imagine the power this conveyed.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

John’s work led to personal disaster. The story of his death is told by another Bury monk, John Gosford, in his Election of John Timworth (Electio domini Iohannis Tymwrith in abbatem, Cotton MS Claudius A XII, ff. 135v–136r):

Hanging the prior’s head on a pillory, that whole cursing band came into the monastery, naming certain brothers, of whom they sought one before all the others, namely Walter Toddington; but when they could not find him, they sought another, namely the keeper of the barony. Although he could have fled from their hands, he refused to do so, declaring that he could not fall to a better cause than for the rights of his church, which he was always defending to the best of his ability, and therefore he wished to await the atonement of death for its sake, if it would drive their murderous hands from it. Some people from the village who hated him very much, pretending that they would be clean by his blood, arranged for the wicked people from the region to capture, hold, and kill him. When they came into his cloister where he had been stationed, they shouted, ‘Where is that betrayer?’ He answered them, ‘I am not a betrayer; but if you wish to have me, here I am.’ They shouted, ‘We have found the betrayer!’ They carried him away from the cloister, and led him into the middle of the marketplace: leading him through the road, they dragged him along. They not only attacked him with blows, but inflicted many mortal wounds on him, so that he was nearly dead by the time he reached that place. There, the killer struck him seven times before he was able to cut off his head. They set it up on the pillory with the other heads.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Lakenheath Register can mean something quite different: the townspeople must have thought it an instrument of tyranny, while the abbey depicted John’s work as that of a martyr. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Andrew Dunning

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06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

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 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.

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Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

Stop by and see the pages for yourself! The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public, seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

Taylor McCall

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03 February 2017

A Medieval Wikipedia: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things

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The British Library has recently digitised a copy of one of the most popular medieval reference works: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things (De proprietatibus rerum), an encyclopaedia meant to serve as a reference guide for all of the ‘things’ — a Wikipedia equivalent of the Middle Ages.

The copy just digitised is Additional MS 8785, a vernacular translation produced around the year 1308 in Mantua, Italy, and is full of unique illustrations. The author of the Latin original, Bartholomew the Englishman (d. 1272), was a Franciscan monk living in Paris, and On the Properties of Things (completed around 1240) became a medieval bestseller; there are over 200 manuscript copies of the text surviving today.

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Bartholomew the Englishman inspired by Christ to write On the Properties of Things, and next to him a depiction of Christ, marked by the golden halo (Add MS 8785, f. 14r).

Bartholomew divided his encyclopaedia into 19 books on different topics, including natural philosophy and theology, anatomy and medicine, astronomy and astrology, the elements, zoology, botany, geography, geology and mineralogy, among others.

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Book 15: On Geography: an image of an ‘Earthly paradise’, featuring two men debating in a rocky landscape before a burning city, surrounded by angels, plants and streams (Add MS 8785, f. 191v).

Additional MS 8785 is notable for being one of the earliest vernacular translations of the encyclopaedia, put into the Italian dialect local to Mantua by a man called Vivaldo del Belcalzer. Nothing is known about Vivaldo except what he writes in the beginning of the manuscript, which is that he presented it — complete with over one hundred illustrations — to the signore of Mantua sometime around 1308.

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End of book 19 (section entitled ‘mapa del mond’): a small map of the world with buildings in place of cities, Jerusalem at the centre, divided by the seas; the globe is held by Christ, whose head is at the top, hands at each side, and feet at the bottom (Add MS 8785, f. 315r).

This copy includes more illustrations than most, many of which are situated inside small initials beginning the different sections of the text, known as historiated initials. The most popular book is probably number 18, ‘On Animals’, which was often illustrated and associated with the bestiary tradition (for more on bestiaries, see our recent blogpost on Fantastic Beasts). In addition to depictions of familiar animals — dogs, cats, lions etc — there are also descriptions of a few fantastic beasts, including this page devoted to the so-called ‘monstrous’ races of hybrid humans:

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Book 18: On Animals: Fauns and satyrs and monstrous races (Add MS 8785, f. 285r).

It was rare for all chapters of On the Properties of Things to be illustrated, and this is particularly the case for Books 5–7, which dealt with the anatomy of the human body, the four humours and diseases. In these books, the historiated initials beginning each section include small images of organs and other body parts; on the page below, the initial in the left column includes a foot and at top right, a heel. The larger initial ‘S’ towards the bottom right of the page features a robed man holding a book, likely a depiction of one of the medical authors that Bartholomew consulted when compiling the encyclopaedia, whose names are credited in red ink in the margins.

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End of Book 5: On the Parts of the Body, and beginning of Book 6: On the 'Simple Members' of the Body (Add MS 8785, f. 57r).

And finally, one of our favourite images is from Book 17 (On Herbs and Plants): a depiction of a vineyard, in which the lady in the centre has perhaps overindulged in the large carafes of wine being offered to her!

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Book 17: On Herbs and Plants: A vineyard scene (Add MS 8785, f. 257r).

As Bartholomew wrote in his epilogue, this encyclopaedia was meant to be read by ‘the simple and the young, who on account of the infinite number of books cannot look into the properties of each single thing about which Scripture deals, can readily find their meaning herein — at least superficially’. You can see the entire manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site – let us know what meanings you find!

Taylor McCall

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01 February 2017

A Calendar Page for February 2017

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To find out more about Additional MS 36684, see last month’s entry (January 2017), and for more on medieval calendars, check out our original calendar post.

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Calendar page for February, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 2v–3r

The February calendar entry in Additional MS 36684 shows ever-more creative animal and human hybrid figures in the margins, including an undoubtedly chilly lady who is missing her clothes while perusing a book. Much warmer is our labour of the month, a grinning man sitting very close to a roaring fire, heating his socks. Wonder what is cooking in his pot!

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Labour of the month, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

On the opposite folio, the zodiac figure of Pisces, two fishes swimming in opposite directions connected by a single thread, are happily installed in a miniature Gothic cathedral. They are flanked by two curious, vaguely mammalian creatures trumpeting their importance with golden horns.

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Pisces, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 3r

You might have noticed a significant entry on the fourteenth day of February: the feast of ‘Valentini martyris’, or Valentine the Martyr. It was only in the later Middle Ages that St Valentine first came to be associated with romantic love.

The borders of the first page include several realistic birds alongside the fantastic decorative hybrid figures. This is perhaps because mid-February was thought to be the time in which birds paired off — another reason why St Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

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Birds (and a butterfly), calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

As a reminder, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope your feet are as toasty as our labourer’s!

Taylor McCall
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