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23 June 2017

The language of love (and poetry and history)

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Old Occitan or Langue d’oc, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours, was claimed by Dante to be the perfect language for verse. It is still spoken in southern France and in pockets of Italy and northern Spain. Early genres and themes first developed by the troubadour poets of Provence and the surrounding regions were adopted by French trouveres and German minnesanger. Occitan literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is arguably ‘a primary reference for the medieval literatures of what we now call France, Spain, Italy and Germany’ (Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours’ (2011)).

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The seven virtues and vices of lovers, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 227r

As we mentioned in a previous blogpost, the British Library's earliest manuscript containing Old Occitan is Harley MS 2928, probably copied in the 12th century. Many of our Occitan manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Breviari d’Amor, the Vie de St Honorat and the Somme le Roi  are the most popular surviving texts, along with Chansonniers or collections of lyrics, many of which were copied in Italy and Catalunya. Three of our 14th-century manuscripts, all from southern France, have recently been digitised; two of them contain the Breviari d’Amors and a third is an Occitan version of an illustrated almanac.

The Breviari d’Amors

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The author, Matfre, holding a large book from which he is instructing four crowned figures with books or scrolls, from the Breviari d’Amor, early 14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 7r

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The Devil incites people to the sins of robbery, lust, violence and avarice and brings disaster to a ship at sea, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amors is a poetic work composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292. Ermengaud described himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love. His work contains a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, seen as a manifestation of God’s love.

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The hierarchy of angels adoring the Trinity from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 30v

Both volumes in our collections are believed to have been copied in Toulouse in the 14th century. They are filled with remarkable illuminations showing God and Love at the centre of all creation. They are in a unique style associated with southern Europe in this period.

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The Tree of Love from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

Scientific topics focus on astronomy and meteorology, while spiritual matters such as theology, angelology, demonology, mystical anthropology, sacred and scriptural studies are treated at length, together with the art of living on earth, and the subject of human love. Love is the metaphysical link between the spiritual realm and the created universe.

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A circular diagram of the planets governing the days of the week, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 53v

For Ermengaud, angels are at the centre of many of the functions governing life on earth.

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The six ages of the world, with an angel in the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 58v

There is a third copy of the Breviari  in our collections and also fully digitised (Yates Thompson MS 31) but it is in Catalan prose rather than Occitan, and was made in Catalunya (probably Girona) towards the end of the 14th century. The style of the illuminations is rather different. There are some rather elegant images of Hell-mouths (always a favourite subject on this blog) that almost look inviting!

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The Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, souls in Purgatory, unbaptised infants in Limbo and the Damned engulfed in flames, last quarter of the 14th century, Spain, E. (Catalonia, ?Gerona ), Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 250r

The Abreujamen de las Estorias

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Synchronic table of kings and emperors of the world with Alexander the Great and Ptolemy from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  France, S. (Avignon); 2nd quarter of the 14th century (after 1323), Egerton MS 1500, f. 13v

Love, the universe and poetry were not the only topics of Occitan manuscripts. The Abreujamen de las Estorias (Egerton MS 1500) is a diagrammatic chronicle in Occitan, based on the Latin chronicle of Paolino (c. 1275–c. 1344), a Fransiscan friar and diplomat from Venice. It consists of genealogical diagrams with notes and synchronic tables of popes, emperors and kings, including English kings, and it marks the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Of special note is an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted in the almanac, with miniatures and maps of Antioch and Jerusalem. This was featured in our recent blogpost on the Crusades.

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A synchronic table of kings including King John of England, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Roger of Sicily and Saladin, with scenes from the Crusades, from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  Egerton MS 1500, f. 53v

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Map of Jerusalem from the Abreujamen de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, f. 49r

Brunel listed 11 manuscripts in Occitan then held at the British Museum (now in the British Library) and there are two more in our collections today. Of these 13 manuscripts, 4 have been digitised in full, as described above, and a selection of images of a further 5 are online on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Egerton MS 945: A liturgical collection in Norman French and Occitan 

Harley MS 3041: Eleucidarium with a page of lyrics in Occitan  

Harley MS 3183: A devotional manual from the Périgord 

Harley MS 4830: Laws of the city of Avignon 

Harley MS 7403: Religious texts, some in Occitan 

The remainder have descriptions in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue:

Add MS 10323: La vie de St Honorat

Add MS 17920: A Collection of Historical works, formerly part of Egerton MS 1500 

Add MS 22636: Thesaurus Pauperum and a collection of medical texts in Latin, with a fragment of a poem in Occitan 

Chantry Westwell

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Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

21 June 2017

Stay cool

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This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

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Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

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Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

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Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

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Detail of a sciapod, from images of the Monstrous Races from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

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Sciapods from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

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Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were also said to born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

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A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

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16 June 2017

Old Occitan at the British Library

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Old Occitan or langue d’Oc was a language widely spoken and written in southern France and parts of Italy up to the French Revolution. The name is based on the word for "yes": ‘òc’ as opposed to the ‘oïl’ (modern ‘oui’) of Paris and northern France. The earliest literary manuscripts date from the 11th century, though there was an earlier oral tradition, and written fragments found in official documents in Latin and responses in litanies date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

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The Lord in a mandorla surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, from a Psalter, Breviary and other theological texts, 1075–1225, France, S. W., Harley MS 2928, f. 14v

Clovis Brunel’s Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal lists 376 literary manuscripts in Old Occitan (excluding legal and administrative documents),  of which only 8 are from the 11th and 12th centuries, though many of the key texts were composed in this period.

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Text page of a passage from John’s gospel in Old Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 190r

One of the oldest surviving texts in Old Occitan prose is a translation of four chapters of John’s Gospel from a manuscript in the British Library's collections that has recently been digitised, along with many of our pre-1200 manuscripts, as part of the Polonsky digitisation project: Harley MS 2928

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Historiated initial ‘D’(ixit dominus), at the beginning of Psalm 110, of the Lord enthroned with a human figure lying prostrate at his feet, Harley MS 2928, f. 74v

This late 11th- or early 12th-century manuscript from southern France (perhaps the town of Solignac in the Limousin) contains chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel in Old Occitan (ff. 187v–191v). It is the only vernacular text in a collection of Latin liturgical texts including a psalter, litanies, prayers, and a book of Hymns (Expositio hymnorum).   

There are 11 historiated initials illustrating the most important Psalms. 

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Historiated initial ‘B’(eati) of a ?pilgrim with a staff, at the beginning of Psalm 119, Harley MS 2928, f. 77r

The section of John’s Gospel in Occitan, pictured below, relates the events of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet and Christ’s sermon to the assembled Disciples. The rubric preceding the text is in Latin:

Incipit sermo domini nostri Ihesu Christi quem fecit in cena sua quando pedes lavit discipulis suis

(Here begins the sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave at his supper when he washed the feet of his disciples).

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Text page with rubric at the beginning of John, Chapter 13 in Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

The Old Occitan text begins:

Avan lo dia festal de la Pasca sabia lo Salvadre que la soa ora ve que traspasse da quest mun au Paer

(Before the feast of Passover when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart from this world to the Father)

This short extract contains several examples of key variations between Old Occitan and standard French:

  • final consonants in clusters like –nt and -nd fall away completely (in standard French they are nasalised) to produce  ‘avan’ instead of  ‘avant’ (before) and ‘mun’ instead of ‘monde’ (world)
  • some words are closer to modern Spanish than to French: ‘dia’ instead of ‘jour’ (day) and ‘sabia’ instead of ‘savait’ (knew)
  • vowel sounds differ in many common words: ‘lo’ for ‘le’ (masculine article), ‘Paer’ for ‘Père’ (father) and again ‘mun’ for ‘monde’

According to Wunderli , whose 1969 edition of the Occitan text is included in the bibliography, the dialect is from the Limousin or Périgord regions.

The Old Occitan section are not the only interesting parts of this manuscript. The Expositio Hymnorum (Hymnal or Book of Hymns) is arranged according to the liturgical day and year and includes collects from the Gospels and homilies of St Ambrose and St Gregory. It contains 12th-century musical notation, or neumes, from southern France on ff. 127r–187v.

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Folio from the Expositio Hymnorum with 12th-century neumes, Harley MS 2928, f. 134r

4 full-page miniatures in colours, sadly rather worn (ff. 13v, 14v, 17r, 18r), precede the Psalms, which begin with the Prologue by Pseudo Augustin on f. 19r, 'Laus Psalmorum. Canticum psalmorum animas decorat'.  In one image, what appears to be of a kneeling saint, perhaps Saint Stephen, is being stoned by two figures in tunics, while  gazing at the sun, or perhaps watching a comet.

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A kneeling saint is stoned, Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

4 more full-page miniatures of scenes from the New Testament (ff. 15r, 15v, 16r, 16v), were added in Bologna in the 13th century and have been attributed to the ‘Master of 1285’ (see Conti, La Miniature Bolognese (1981)).

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Added miniature of the Raising of Lazarus, last quarter of the 13th century, Italy, N. (Bologna), Harley MS 2928, f. 15r

 

Harley MS 2928 contient un des plus anciens exemples écrits de la langue d’oc ou de l'occitan : il s'agit d'une traduction de quatre chapitres de l’Evangile de saint Jean. Désormais disponible en ligne, entièrement numérisé, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts, ce manuscrit comprend aussi un psautier, une ‘Expositio hymnorum’, avec neumes du XIIe siècle et une collection liturgique en Latin. Selon Winderli, il fut copié dans le Limousin ou le Périgord à la fin du XIe ou début du XIIe siècle.  Quatre grandes enluminures occupent les feuillets ff. 13v, 14v, 17r et 18r et onze lettrines historiées illustrent le Psautier. L’usure a parfois rendu ces illustrations peu lisibles, mais le style est distinctif.  Quatre enluminures furent ajoutées à Bologne à la fin du XIIIe siècle.  L’extrait de l’évangile (Jean, chapitres 13 à 17) raconte les évènements du Jeudi saint et le discours de Jésus à ses disciples lors de la cène.

                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

Alessandro Conti, La Miniature Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe 1270-1340 (Bologna: ALFA, 1981), pp. 25–26.

Peter Wunderli, La plus ancienne traduction provençale (XIIe siecle) des chapitres XII à XVII del’évangile de saint Jean (BM Harley 2928), Bibliotheque Francaise et Romane, D.4 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).

 

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10 June 2017

Battles and Dynasties at Lincoln

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The second Battle of Lincoln, 20 May 1217, is one of the greatest English conflicts that almost nobody has ever heard of. The British Library is a partner in a new exhibition at The Collection Museum in Lincoln from 27 May to 3 September 2017 which hopes to change this: Battles and Dynasties. This exhibition brings together an enormous range of artefacts from the medieval to modern periods, celebrating the role of Lincoln in the development of modern Britain.

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The First Battle of Lincoln, 1141, in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum: Arundel MS 48, f. 168v.

Given the relative stability of the monarchy in the kingdom of England during the Middle Ages, it is easy to forget the many contests to the position of its kings and queens. We all know the bloody story of the Wars of the Roses, but conflict boiled over far earlier than this. Lincoln was a centre for this, as one of the prominent fortified settlements in the eastern part of England. The first Battle of Lincoln of 1141 saw the forces of the Empress Matilda capture King Stephen. At the second Battle of Lincoln, the future of the country was at stake as forces loyal to Prince Louis of France challenged the authority of King Henry III, still a child. Henry’s forces won the day, and he went on to rule for more than fifty years – but English history would have been different if the battle had gone otherwise.

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Peraldus, Summa de uirtutibus et uitiis: Harley MS 3244, ff. 27v–28r.

Lincoln was also a major intellectual centre of medieval England. Its cathedral school became one of the most prominent English centres of education in the late 12th century under the beloved teacher William de Montibus. His student, Richard of Wetheringsett, went on to become the first known chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste became one of the most influential writers of the 13th century. All these figures’ works feature in Harley MS 3244, which is displayed at Lincoln with its splendid illustrated version of a treatise on the virtues and vices, as applied to the armour of a knight.

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Great Bible of Henry IV: Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 163v.

Also on display are some of the splendours of courtly culture made in the midst of conflict. King Henry IV is generally known for his ruthlessness, thanks to his deposition of Richard II, but he was also a lover of books: the enormous Great Bible, measuring 630 × 430 mm, is thought to have been in his collection. England’s interdependencies on Europe did not slow even in the face of the wars at this time: the volume of Jehan de Wavrin’s Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre (Old and New Chronicles of England) in the exhibition, Royal MS 14 E IV, was produced in Lille and Bruges in the 1470s for King Edward IV, while conflicts over who should be the monarch continued to brew.

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Jehan de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 10r.

There are far more treasures to see in the exhibition. In parallel with the show, part of Domesday Book is on display at Lincoln Castle, the first time it has been shown outside London since it became part of the Public Record Office and National Archives. Also on display from the British Library are the Rochester Chronicle (Cotton MS Nero D II) and the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall (Cotton MS Vespasian D X). The collections gathered at Lincoln are a reminder that events maintaining the status quo are just as important as those that overturn it, and that culture can continue to flourish even in the midst of conflict. We hope that many of you get the chance to view our manuscripts in person.

Andrew Dunning

06 June 2017

In an artistic league of its own

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No matter how long you’ve worked with medieval manuscripts, there's always one that completely surprises you. One manuscript that has astonished many scholars, and still inspires debate, is the combination of music, texts and images in the mid-11th-century portion of Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, known as the Caligula Troper or Cotton Troper. The Caligula Troper has been described as ‘completely unexpected in a mid-eleventh-century English context’ (T.A. Heslop, ‘Manuscript illumination at Worcester, c. 1055–1065’, in The Cambridge Illuminations: The Conference Papers ed. by Stella Panayotova (London: Harvey Miller, 2007), p. 69). Not only is it illustrated, which is unusual for surviving early English musical manuscripts, but the style of its illustrations is unparalleled elsewhere.

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St Martin identifying a devil trying to disguise himself as Christ, from the Caligula Troper, England (?Western England), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 29r

The Caligula Toper is so-called because it was housed in the section of Sir Robert Cotton's library named after the Roman emperor Caligula and it contains the text for tropes: that is, chants which would have been added to the mass on special days, like saints’ days or major holidays. The volume’s slim size — it fits in your palm — suggests it could have been used by a single person, such as a soloist. The text is accompanied by musical notation, called ‘neumes’. Although some neumes look like modern musical notes, they had a slightly different use and functioned more as an aide-mémoire for someone who already knew the tune.

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Tropes for Christmas, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

The Caligula Troper also contains illustrations of Biblical scenes and scenes from the lives of the saints mentioned in the text, ‘captioned’ by verses which run around the edges of the images.

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Miniature of Peter being released from prison, to accompany music from the feast of St Peter in Chains, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 22r

It is these illustrations that make the Caligula Troper so unusual. While the script and the musical notation seem to be English, the style of the illustrations is rather different from the artistic style which dominated de luxe English book productions during the late 10th and early 11th century. This style emphasized curved figures, round faces, and extremely fluttery drapery, as shown in the drawings below, which may have been made at about the same time as or shortly before the Troper.

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Miniature of Orion, from Cicero's Aratea, Southern England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 39r; Miniature of the Crucifixion, from Ælfwine's Prayerbook, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

By contrast, the artist or artists of the Caligula Troper had a very geometric style, especially for the figures’ long faces, stylized hair-dos and triangular or diamond-shaped hemlines. The artist(s)’ use of bold colours, particularly red and yellow, is also striking, given that most surviving 11th-century English manuscripts favoured a range of colours or tinted line drawings. The artist(s) also used tonal modelling, or gradients of colour and shading, in a more decisive way than is found in other surviving English manuscripts.

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A group of virgins, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 36r

This contrast can be seen particularly in images like the Ascension or the naming of John the Baptist. There, the artist(s) of the Caligula Troper copied the cast of characters and even the gestures found in late 10th- and 11th-century English manucripts, but with a totally different effect due to the more angular features on the figures and the sharper gradient of colours.

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The Ascension, three ways: ‘Winchester-style’ painting from the Benedictional of St
Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 64; Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 18r; tinted line-drawing from the Tiberius Psalter, England (Winchester?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 15r

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The naming of John the Baptist, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v and a detail of the naming of John the Baptist, from Add MS 49598, f. 92v

Because of this unusual artistic style, no one knows for sure where it was made. This manuscript has been associated with various religious houses, including Hereford, Gloucester, and the Old Minster, Winchester. Its date is also debated. Even if we could establish where the Caligula Troper was made, that still does not explain where the artist or artists were inspired to create such distinctive artwork. Some scholars have suggested that they spent time in mainland Europe or had access to continental manuscripts brought by travelling bishops. Others have suggest that the artist(s) were trained at Canterbury, and may even have known Eadwig [Eadui] Basan, the prolific scribe of several gilded service books.

Wherever and by whomever the Caligula Troper was made, Elizabeth Teviotdale has shown that it was used into the 13th-century, possibly at Worcester. Although the 11th-century portion that survives is missing some of its pages, it was added to a 12th-century Troper and Proser by the 13th-century, when the same hand annotated it. By the 12th-century, some musical notations and styles had changed — notably, notation now included lines to help indicate pitches — but the beautiful and unusual 11th-century troper continued to be valued and possibly even used for centuries to come. Thanks to its recent digitisation by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, hopefully this distinctive manuscript can continue to intrigue and surprise viewers for many, many years to come. 

Chaque manuscrit est singulier, mais on trouve parfois des manuscrits vraiment sans pareil. Ainsi, le ‘Caligula Troper’ est le seul manuscrit anglais du haut moyen âge qui contient à la fois de la musique et des images. De plus, le style de l’artiste de ce manuscrit ne ressemble pas à ce qu’on trouve dans les autres manuscrits créés en Angleterre au XIe siècle.

Alison Hudson

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03 June 2017

Methods of making Insular manuscripts

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The Medieval Manuscripts section at the British Library is a partner in a new project, ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The first of three international workshops at the heart of this project was held at the British Library on 24th and 25th April 2017. These workshops will support the future study of Insular manuscripts preserved in libraries around the world, which are becoming increasingly accessible via digital facsimiles.

Insular Manuscripts April 2017
Workshop participants at the British Library

The London workshop focused on ‘Methods of making: palaeographical problems, codicological challenges’. Through a mixture of presentations and group discussion, the workshop considered what is known about the origin, production and circulation of Insular manuscripts from AD 650 to 850.

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St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 60, p.5: Evangelium S. Johannis. Listed as one of the Libri scottice scripti (‘books in Irish script’) in the mid 9th century catalogue of books at St Gallen, Switzerland.

Beginning with the basics, the workshop opened with an examination of what it means to describe a manuscript as Insular. The term ‘Insular’ is used to describe a range of scripts which originated in Ireland in the 6th century. The higher grade manuscripts are characterised by elaborate initial letters decorated with interlace and zoomorphic designs, and smaller initials embellished with red dots.

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St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 126, p.296: Hieronymus, Commentarii in Matthaeum. In this book an Insular scribe wrote alongside another trained in the local Alemannic script.

The use of Insular script soon spread to Anglo-Saxon England, particularly Northumbria, and was taken to continental Europe by Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries where manuscripts written in Insular scripts continued to be produced well into the ninth century. Around 500 Insular manuscripts survive and 75% of these are now in continental European libraries, including about 40% in Germany and 10% in France. Some of these are very well known and are among the greatest treasures to survive from medieval Europe, but many more are much less studied and have much to reveal about the deep cultural connections between England, Ireland and continental Europe in the early Middle Ages.

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A Prayer in elegiac verse, from the Royal Prayerbook, Southern England (Mercia), late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 39r

Script is not the only feature of a manuscript which can be described as Insular. The workshop also explored distinctive Insular methods of making and preparing parchment. In the early medieval period, parchment was made from the skin of calves, sheep and goats. Monasteries often used certain skins for different purposes, and established their own methods of preparing and arranging the parchment in book production. By studying these book production techniques, it is possible to reveal important details such as where a manuscript was produced and what resources a monastery could draw upon.

Vnoucek's Parchment
An example of a stillborn lamb's hide mid-way through the preparation process. The bottom half is further advanced in the process to demonstrate that the colour of individual animals did not affect the parchment they produced. Courtesy of Jiri Vnoucek.

The influence of Insular parchment production and arrangement can even be seen in manuscripts which were written in a Roman style using Italian-influenced uncial script, as in the Ceolfrith Leaves, fragments of one of three great Bibles written at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. The Ceolfrith Leaves used calf skin in traditional insular style, but announcing an important discovery, Jiří Vnouček revealed that the sister manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus (now Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana MS Amiat. 1) was made entirely from goat and sheep skin, mimicking the very best Italian book production in materials as well as script. The decision to produce Codex Amiatinus on Italian-style parchment fits into the overall ‘Romanizing’ character of the codex which was created as a gift for the pope.

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Page from the Ceolfrith Leaves, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716,
 Add MS 45025, f. 2r

Our modern understanding of Insular manuscripts and the monasteries which produced them is often defined by luxury manuscripts such as the Ceolfrith Leaves or the Lindisfarne Gospels, but these monasteries would also have produced many more ‘everyday’, utilitarian texts, which rarely survive.

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Beginning of the Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f.18v

One example of an ‘everyday’ text which does survive, written in Insular script, is a letter sent from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 704 or 705. This letter is the earliest original letter written on parchment to survive from the Christian West. Original letters rarely survive because they had no legal value, and so there was less reason to preserve the original. There are clear differences between the cursive Insular minuscule script used to write this letter, and the elaborate Insular majuscule (also known as Insular half-uncial) used to write the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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Letter of Wealdhere, Bishop of London to Berhtwald, Archbishop of Canterbury, London, 704/705,
Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Manuscripts are inherently portable objects and were often taken away from their centre of production. Many manuscripts written in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, using Insular script, were exchanged between the two countries and sent to and from institutions on the Continent.

One particular manuscript discussed in the workshop was the British Library’s Irish Pocket Gospel book. This tiny manuscript (130 mm x 105 mm) was produced in Ireland in the late 8th or early 9th century, and had made its way to Anglo-Saxon England by the 10th century. In England, the decoration surrounding some illuminated initials was scraped away and repainted. It is possible to see traces of the original design.

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Incipit of Luke’s Gospel, made in Ireland in the late 8th or early 9th century and reworked in England in the 10th century, Add MS 40618, f. 23

An on-going point of discussion throughout the workshop was the wide geographical reach of Insular manuscripts and the pervasive legacy of their style. The people and places that produced and used these books, and the opportunities for study created by advances in digital technology will be at the forefront of the discussions of the next two workshops to be held in 2018 and 2019.

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Beginning of Book II of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, England, late 8th or early 9th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The participation of the Medieval Manuscripts section in the project complements the early medieval focus of recent digitisation projects. Over 175 Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have currently been digitised, and 400 more manuscripts produced before c. 1200 will be digitised thanks to The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200

Becky Lawton

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01 June 2017

A calendar page for June 2017

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Happy June, medieval enthusiasts! We’re back with the calendar pages for June from the wonderful Additional MS 36684. For more information on the manuscript, take a peek at January’s post, and for an excellent general guide to medieval calendars, please see our original calendar post from 2011.

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Calendar pages for June, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 6v–7r

The true stars of June’s calendar pages are — as usual with this unique manuscript — the marginal figures. Here are a few of our favourites, zoomed in so you can see them in better detail:

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A long-necked beast with human legs being fed by a bird, Add MS 36684, f. 6v

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A creature with a head atop a pair of long legs, Add MS 36684, f. 6v

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A drummer, Add MS 36684, f. 6v

June’s labour of the month is a peasant at the harvest, carrying a bundle on his back, perhaps entertained by the music played by the drummer in the margin next to him.

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Labour of the Month, Add MS 36684, f. 6v

The zodiac symbol for June is Cancer, traditionally represented as a crab. The fellow in the niche on folio 7r is not a typical crab, but rather — in the vein of the marginal figures on the preceding folio — a hybrid creature, with 6 splayed legs, a tail and a distinctly mammalian head. It is possible the artist had never seen a crab before; or he could have been following an artistic tradition. The typical medieval version of a crab usually looked either like a lobster — as you can see in last year’s Bedford Hours June calendar page — or like our friend here in Additional 36684. For another such example, see, for instance, the crab in Egerton MS 3088, made in southern England c. 1244. 

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Cancer, Add MS 36684, f. 7r

Don’t forget that you can digitally view every page of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. Happy harvesting!

Taylor McCall
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30 May 2017

Alchemy: The Great Art

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The mystical art of alchemy — the traditional aim of which is to transform so-called ‘base’ metals like lead into ‘noble’ ones like gold — has fascinated and enthralled experimenters, philosophers and artists for thousands of years. The history of alchemy, known in the Middle Ages as the ‘Great Art’ (Ars magna), and its continuing impact on artists and culture today, is the focus of a new exhibition at the Kulturforum in Berlin, entitled Alchemy: The Great Art. The exhibition includes hundreds of objects and artworks dating to the past three millennia, dedicated to exploring the origins and enduring allure of alchemy.

The British Library is proud to have loaned two of our own alchemical manuscripts to the exhibition. Both were created in the later Middle Ages, when alchemy was understood as a God-given gift that went beyond the superficial desire to create gold, to a much more complicated and elevated pursuit of eternal life or inner enlightenment.

The earlier of the two manuscripts loaned by the British Library is Sloane MS 2560, a 15th-century copy of a popular alchemical text known as the Donum Dei (‘The Gift of God’), probably made in Germany or Austria. Copies of the Donum Dei are usually accompanied by twelve illustrations of flasks containing red and white stones and the changes they undergo throughout the alchemical process. 

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Page from Donum Dei, Central Europe, 15th century, Sloane MS 2560, f. 12r

The exhibition features f. 12r from Sloane MS 2560, an image of a flask showing the purification of water from the ‘black’, meaning death and darkness. The lower half of the flask is white and labelled aqua (water), symbolising purity and holiness (associated in the text with the Virgin’s milk).

The second British Library manuscript in the exhibition is Harley MS 3469, a manuscript dated to 1582, containing the alchemical text known as the Splendor Solis, the ‘Splendour of the Sun’, a well-known and highly decorated treatise. Scholars believe that the earliest version was produced in Germany, now in the Kupferstichkabinett in the Prussian State Museum in Berlin, and dated to 1532–35. The British Library’s magnificent copy is one of 5 copies of the original, in colours and gold on parchment.

The classical alchemical allegories of the Red King and White Queen, whose union represents the conjoining of opposites to create a whole, are personified in the Splendor Solis. The text describes the alchemical death and rebirth of the King, illustrated by a sequence of 22 elaborate images, framed by highly decorated borders. The folio displayed in the exhibition is 18r, showing the mystical rebirth of a swamp man, who is being helped out of the water by an angel.

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Page from the Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582, Harley MS 3469, f. 18r

Alchemy: The Great Art is on at the Berlin Kulturforum until 23 July 2017. Do let us know if you go and visit our manuscripts! And remember, you can explore both Harley MS 3469 and Sloane MS 2540 on the British Library’s websites.

Taylor McCall

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval