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15 March 2014

The Life of a Mystic

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Perhaps the first autobiography ever written in English, this book contains the incredible life story of the female mystic, Margery Kempe, who lived in what is now Kings Lynn, Norfolk from c. 1373 to c. 1440.  The work survives in only one known manuscript, British Library Add MS 61823, written at about the time of her death.  The manuscript’s survival story is nearly as eccentric and action-packed as that of its heroine (on which, see below).  It was owned by the Butler Bowden family and the story goes that when Colonel W. Butler Bowden was looking for a ping-pong bat in a cupboard at his family home near Chesterfield in the early 1930s he came across a pile of old books.  Frustrated at the disorder, he threatened to put the whole lot on the bonfire the next day so that bats and balls would be easier to find in future.  Luckily a friend advised him to have the books checked by an expert and shortly afterwards Hope Emily Allen identified one as the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’, which was previously known only from excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521 (where the author is described as ‘a devoute ancres’).  A true miracle!

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Opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 1r

Margery Kempe was the daughter of a merchant named John Brunham and at about the age of twenty she married John Kempe, a brewer and chamberlain of Lynn.  After the birth of her first child, she suffered depression, from which she was cured by a vision of Christ.  She had another thirteen children before she finally persuaded her husband to agree that they should live chastely!  She then donned white robes and sought permission from her bishop, who sent her to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, but there is no record that she took formal vows.  In 1413 she left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, living off charity along the way.  In Jerusalem, she visited Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, where she was overtaken by a fit of uncontrollable crying , which, together with her roaring in church, brought her fame as a mystic, but also provoked hostility, especially in England on her return.  She was constantly in conflict with the establishment in her town, rejecting the conventional values and materialism of her fellow citizens and breaking her links with her family and society.

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Text page from the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 6r

As recorded in the book, she set off again on pilgrimage in 1417 to Santiago de Compostela.  On her return from Spain she was accused of heresy several times and imprisoned in Leicester on a charge of Lollardy, and was reportedly mistreated while in prison.  Having argued her innocence before the church authorities on several occasions, she finally was given a letter by the Archbishop of Canterbury, allowing her access to confession and communion.  She returned to Lynn, beset by physical hardships, and lived an intense spiritual life, filled with visions, conversations with Christ and noisy lamentation.  Her husband, perhaps wisely, stayed away, but when he suffered an injury, she nursed him until his death, after which she travelled to Germany with her daughter at the age of almost 60 to see the Holy Blood in Brandenburg and the relics in Aachen.  The last record we have of her is in 1438.  Her book was completed by this time and a ‘Margeria Kempe’, who may be its author, was admitted to the prestigious Trinity Guild of Lynn.  She is thought to have died shortly after this, but there is no record of her death.  The scribe who wrote down this version of Margery’s story identifies himself as Salthows, priest at Lynn in Norfolk and scholars believe this is not the original copy of the work, but was made a little later than the original, perhaps under the author’s supervision. 

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Detail of the Mount Grace Priory ownership inscription from The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. iv verso

The verso of the first page of the manuscript contains the rubric, ‘Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace’, and has been annotated by four scribes, probably monks associated with the   Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire.  Some of the notes in the margins give us an idea how the book was read by these monks and suggest why it was preserved by them.  One such note provides marginal headings, pointing to key passages in the text, such as ‘nota de clamore’ when Margery utters her first cry, and here a note with the word ‘mirabile’ (miracle):

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Marginal note in Latin marking a miraculous event in The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. 40v.

In this passage, Margery is described as being at the Church of St John Lateran in Rome, where she meets a very learned priest, a ‘Dewcheman’ (German) who ‘undirstod non Englycsh ne wist not what sche seyd’, and she could  speak ‘non other language than Englysch’ so they had to speak to each other through an interpreter.  Then, on Margery’s advice, the priest prayed for 13 days, at the end of this ‘he undirstod what sche seyd in Englysch to hym and sche undirstod what that he
seyd. And yet he undirstod not Englisch that other men spokyn’ – a miracle indeed!  But for Margery this was not an occasion to celebrate:  ‘sche sobbyd boistowsly and cryed ful lowde and horybly’. One wonders what the learned priest’s reaction could have been.

Religious eccentric, feminist icon, literary genius, early social reformer – Margery Kempe has been described as all these things by critics approaching her text in different ways.  However we view her, there is no doubt that the work provides an invaluable insight into 15th century urban life and into the religious practices of the period. 

-  Chantry Westwell

10 March 2014

Magical Mystery Play

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As you may have heard, the British Library has recently acquired a unique and richly decorated copy of a medieval mystery play. We're delighted to tell you that the whole is now available, in two volumes, on our Digitised Manuscripts site, as Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2. To whet your appetite, here are some more images from the manuscript, and the fascinating story of how it was made.

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Vespasian’s miraculous recovery from leprosy upon being shown Christ’s face on the Holy Veil by Saint Veronica, from the Mystère de la Vengeance by Eustache Marcadé, Bruges, c. 1465 (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/1, f. 111r).

The manuscript was illustrated by Loyset Liédet (b. c. 1420, d. 1479) from Hesdin, in northern France, who may have been a student of Simon Marmion there. In 1469 Liédet joined the book producer’s confraternity in Bruges. He was a favourite artist of the Dukes of Burgundy, and is known to have decorated at least 15 and possibly as many as 20 extant manuscripts, and probably many others besides that are either lost or as yet unidentified. He was a master of colour and narrative, particularly of secular scenes. Liédet’s painting in this book is important for its groundbreaking, inventive and imaginative interpretation of a play, rather than devotional text. Because he was illustrating a new contemporary text, Liédet had to create new scenes corresponding to the text. His creative and novel compositions narrate the text in original ways.

Liédet's work is a valuable record of contemporary fashion and textiles, of secular life and of the emerging interest in scenes of internal space combined with external city and landscapes, as evidenced in the cure of Vespasian, above (Additional MS 89066/1, f. 111r), and the arrest of Pilate (Additional MS 89066/1, f. 128v) pictured below.

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Detail of a miniature showing the violent arrest of Pontius Pilate by armed guards (Add MS 89066/1, f. 128v).

The complexity, innovation and use of colour in Liédet’s cycle of illustrations and his subtlety in the handling of the narrative have few parallels among contemporary manuscripts or panel paintings.

Liédet devised 20 large paintings to illustrate scenes in the play. These are incredibly detailed, and follow the text closely. For example, in the image of two doctors visiting Vespasian, the red spots of leprosy are visible on the patient’s body, and the artist has followed the stage direction Le [deuxième] medicin en regardant son visaige (the second doctor looks at his face) by depicting the doctor looking directly at Vespasian, and holding Vespasian’s hand, possibly to take his pulse (f. 61v, volume 1). These large and unique paintings therefore constitute an important witness of the artist’s skill at illustrating a new dramatic text.

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Detail of a miniature showing Vespasian suffering from leprosy and being examined in bed by two doctors (Add MS 89066/1, f. 61v).

Thanks to surviving ducal accounts made after Philip’s death in July 1468, we know exactly how much the manuscript cost, and the name of the scribe and artist. The text was written by the scribe Yvonnet le Jeune, who was paid 16 shillings for each of the 38 quires (£30). The artist, Loyset Liédet (the enlumineur) was paid 18 shillings for each miniature (£18). Each of the 24 large illuminated initials (grandes lettres a champaigne dor et vingnettes dedens) cost 12 pence, for a total of 24 shillings. The binding cost 31 shillings, and the metal fittings for the binding 14 shillings (The original binding and fittings are now lost). The expense to produce the whole book was 51 pounds and 19 shillings. This price can be compared to the cost of a panel painting: in 1464, Dirk Bouts received 200 Rhenish guilders (£33 6s. 8d.) from the confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in Louvain for the painting of a triptych of the Last Supper. In comparison, a senior military officer at Philip the Good’s court, the Master of the Cannon, was paid a salary of 6 pounds a year (although this may have been in addition to room and board at the court).

This manuscript fills a gap in the British Library’s collections of the work of this artist. We already held at least four manuscripts usually ascribed to a ‘follower of Liédet’ (Royal MS 15 D I, Royal MS 17 F VI, Royal MS 17 F VII and Royal MS 18 E V). The acquisition of a manuscript securely attributed to Liédet, and dated to an early period in his career, is an extremely valuable research resource and we very much hope that it will allow these other attributions to be reassessed.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who supported the acquisition of this beautiful manuscript, and we hope that you like it too! The manuscript was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax before being allocated to the British Library in 2014. Its acquisition was also made possible thanks to generous donations from the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library, International Partners in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, the Breslauer Bequest, and other anonymous donors. It can also now be seen in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library -- we hope that you like it as much as we do!

08 March 2014

The Books of Remarkable Women

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In 2011, when we blogged about the Shaftesbury Psalter (which may have belonged to Adeliza of Louvain; see below), we wrote that medieval manuscripts which had belonged to women were relatively rare survivals.  This still remains true, but as we have reviewed our blog over the past few years, it has become clear that we must emphasize the relative nature of the rarity – we have posted literally dozens of times about manuscripts that were produced for, owned, or created by a number of medieval women.

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Full-page miniature of the manuscript’s female owner kneeling as a supplicant before the Virgin and Child, from the Shaftesbury Psalter, England, 2nd quarter of the 12th century,
Lansdowne MS 383, f. 165v [for more on this manuscript, see:  A Prayerbook Fit for a Queen?]

In honour of International Women’s Day, we would like to have a look back at a few of these manuscripts, and the remarkable women who owned them.  

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Miniature of the Ascension of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 11r

The Melisende Psalter, owned by Melisende, the Queen of Jerusalem (1105-1161), this Psalter was possibly created for her by her husband, Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine

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Miniature of the Crucifixion, with eight niches occupied by male figures, with an historiated initial 'A'(d), with a pope, king, bishop and two others kneeling before an altar, with a bas-de-page scene of Christina cast into the sea and rescued by angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256v

The Queen Mary Psalter, a remarkable manuscript produced in England between 1310 and 1320.  It takes its name from its later owner, Queen Mary Tudor (1516-1558), daughter of Henry VIII, but possibly originally produced for Isabella of France (1295-1358), queen of England and consort of Edward II.  More about the Psalter’s history can be found in the earlier link, or in this post Rival Queens, Precious Books, which also describes the digitisation of the Prayer Book of Lady Jane Grey (1536/7-1554), Harley MS 2342.

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Miniature prefacing the prayers to be said at Mass, with a crowned woman (probably the first owner of the manuscript) kneeling underneath a canopy while a priest raises the host, and a bas-de-page scene of Jerome writing, from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 7r

The Taymouth Hours, a Book of Hours containing a spectacular programme of bas-de-page paintings, this manuscript was created in England in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century.  Its patron was certainly an aristocratic, and possibly royal, woman.  Scholars have variously argued that the original patron may have been Joan of the Tower, the daughter of Edward II and later wife of David II of Scotland (1321-1362), Isabella of France (1295-1358, see above), or Philippa of Hainault (1312-1369), the queen of Edward III.  Recent scholarship hypothesizes that the book was commissioned for Eleanor of Woodstock, elder daughter of Edward II (1318-1355), on the occasion of the princess’s betrothal.  A closely related manuscript, is of course, the famous Unicorn Cookbook.

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Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan working in her study, accompanied by her small dog, at the beginning of the ‘Cent balades’, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the extraordinary manuscript created c. 1410 – c. 1414 by Christine de Pizan (1364- c. 1430), widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors.  The Book of the Queen contains the largest extant collection of Christine’s writing, and was written and decorated under her supervision, commissioned for Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen consort to Charles VI of France.

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Detail of a miniature of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI of England, and surrounded by their court, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book, produced as a wedding gift for the young Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), the future wife of Henry VI of England (and for more details on the texts of this manuscript, see The Art of Chivalry)

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The arms of Ferdinand and Isabella with the arms of Infante John and Margaret of Austria (left) and the arms of Philip of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and Infanta Joanna, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 436v

The Isabella Breviary, produced for Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) and illustrated by the preeminent Flemish artists of the period, this breviary was the subject of our first calendar series back in 2011, as well as a later post on the charming prevalence of monkeys in its margins.

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Full-page miniature of Joanna the Mad praying, accompanied by John the Evangelist, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Add MS 18852, f. 288r

The Hours of Joanna the Mad, created for Joanna the Mad (1479-1555), the daughter of Isabella I of Castile, and carefully customised under Joanna’s direction.  These magnificent Hours have been the subject of a number of our posts, including one on the plethora of marginal animals in the manuscript, and our series on the calendar pages (see as well this post on the mystery of another Book of Hours that may have belonged to Joanna).

There are of course many other examples of medieval women as patrons and artists within our collections and elsewhere.  We hope you enjoy paging through some of these remarkable books, and that you have a very happy International Women’s Day!

- Sarah J Biggs

06 March 2014

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

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We are extremely pleased to be able to tell you that the British Library has acquired an exceptional manuscript of a medieval drama, made for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1467). The manuscript in question was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax, and contains the Mystère de la Vengeance, a play in French verse by the Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440). Duke Philip’s copy is one of the finest surviving illuminated manuscripts of any medieval theatrical text, and is now in two volumes: it includes 20 large miniatures painted by Loyset Liédet (d. 1479), illustrating the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. This manuscript is of outstanding significance as a unique copy of the complete version of a theatrical text illustrated in a completely original way, and as an example of a securely dated and documented work made for one of the greatest patrons of the 15th century.

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Detail of a miniature showing Vespasian suffering from leprosy and being examined in bed by two doctors, from the Mystère de la Vengeance by Eustache Marcadé, Bruges, c. 1465 (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/1, f. 61v).

Philip the Good's manuscript is now British Library, Additional MSS 89066/1 and 89066/2. From Saturday, 8 March, the manuscript will be on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and full digital images are also available on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2).

The newly-acquired manuscript was commissioned for Philip the Good in around 1465. Philip was the most powerful ruler in Europe at that time, and one of the great collectors of the 15th century. The British Library's copy is the only known surviving complete manuscript of Marcadé’s text of the mystery play, in a version that took four days to perform. Another copy is in Arras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 697, but that is a three-day version of the play, and contains around 1,000 fewer verses than Philip’s copy. Nor is the Arras copy illustrated with paintings, but rather with pen and ink drawings, and it is written on paper rather than on parchment. The play was performed in Abbeville, around 30 miles south-west of Hesdin, in 1463, and in Mechelen in 1494. It has been speculated that the Duke of Burgundy was present for the Abbeville performance, and that this deluxe manuscript was made in response to that event.

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Detail of a miniature showing the appearance in the sky of portents of Jerusalem’s destruction, from the Mystère de la Vengeance (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/2, f. 38r).

The Mystère de la Vengeance contains 14,972 lines of French verse, which is set over four days of performances. Its subject is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. The first day’s drama is a debate between the personifications of the Four Virtues, Justice, Mercy, Peace and Truth over whether God should take revenge on Jerusalem for the Crucifixion. The result is a promise from God that any destruction would be preceded by many warnings. On the second day the Emperor Tiberius hears a letter read from Pontius Pilate concerning Christ’s miracles. Concurrently, Vespasian, suffering from leprosy in Spain, is cured by the Vera Icon, or Saint Veronica’s veil. Events in Rome on the third day of the performance include Nero sending Vespasian and his son Titus to Jerusalem to put down a revolt. The ‘year of the four emperors’, 69, is the subject of the last day’s performance, in which Vespasian orders the destruction of Jerusalem. 

The manuscript was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax, and allocated to the British Library in 2014. Its acquisition was also made possible thanks to generous donations from the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library, International Partners in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, the Breslauer Bequest, and other anonymous donors.

For more information about the artist and scribe of this manuscript, see our blogpost Magical Mystery Tour.

04 March 2014

Guess the Manuscript XII

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It's been a while since we've offered up another installment in our award-winning Guess the Manuscript series.  So long, in fact, that the origin of the image below is now a mystery even to us.  Embarrassing though it is to admit, we have forgotten where we found this.  How exciting!

Can you do any better?  By now you are familiar with the rules of the game; this image is from a manuscript somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can either leave your guesses below in the comments, or get in touch with us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Good luck!

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01 March 2014

A Calendar Page for March 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The agricultural labours of the year are shown beginning in earnest in these calendar pages for the month of March.  On the first folio, two men and a woman are continuing the work of vine-trimming that was begun in February, while one man pauses for much-needed refreshment.  On the following folio, the listing of March's saints' days and feasts continues.  In the roundel below can be found a ram (inexplicably lacking his horns) for the zodiac sign Aries.  Beneath him is another well-bundled labourer turning the earth in a field in preparation for planting.

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Calendar page for March, with a roundel miniature of two men and a woman at work trimming vines, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 3v

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Calendar page for March, with a roundel miniature of a man turning earth below the zodiac sign Aries, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4r

- Sarah J Biggs

27 February 2014

Slavery and Sainthood in Cornwall

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Copied in a scriptorium in Brittany in the early 9th century, this Gospel Book, new to our Digitised Manuscripts site, is referred to as the Bodmin Gospels, or the St Petroc Gospels.  Both these names are references to its place of origin; it was originally used for the swearing of oaths upon the altar of the Priory of St Petroc in Bodmin, Cornwall.  Within these Gospels are recorded 51 grants of manumission (records of the freeing of slaves) which occurred between 950 and 1025.  It is one of the most important records of early Cornish Christianity, and the written records are of great interest to paleographers and students of the Cornish language.  Though they are written in Latin and Old English, many of the names mentioned within them are Celtic, such as Wurci (from Welsh Gwrgi, meaning ‘man-dog’) and Modred (after that well-known villain, King Arthur’s nephew).

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Decorated initials 'IN(ITIUM)' with 'I' forming interlace pattern border at the beginning of Mark's gospel, France (Brittany), early 9th century; annotations: Cornwall, 2nd half of the 9th centur, Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Priory of St Petroc, Cornwall, was founded by Celtic monks some decades before St Augustine came to England in 593.  According to his legend, Petroc, a Welshman of noble birth, having completed his education in Ireland, set out in a small boat with a few followers towards the middle of the 6th century.  Though filled with zeal, they were an indecisive bunch, as they seem to have had no destination in mind, and so asked God to set their course.  The winds and tides brought them by pure chance (or divine will?) to the Padstow estuary, where Petroc founded his first monastery.  Again, he seems to have had some difficulty in making up his mind, as a short time later he packed up and moved everyone to Bodmin, where he remained until his death at a very great age.  The monastery at Bodmin was recorded in Domesday Book and later became an Augustinian priory.

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Victorian glasswork of St Petroc of Cornwall, from his church in Bodmin, 19th century.  Image via Wikipedia Commons.

St Petroc is one of the patron saints of Cornwall, and though he may perhaps appear indecisive, his legend is in the swashbuckling tradition, including, at one point, travel to India and the taming of wolves.  He is usually pictured with a stag (not particularly imaginative for a British saint) and his feast day is June 4.  His relics, stolen and carried off to Brittany by a dastardly Breton in 1177, were restored to Cornwall by Henry II, but were then tossed in to the sea when the monastery was sacked in the Reformation.  The beautiful ivory casket in which they were kept survived and is still on display at St Petroc's church in Bodmin.

We know that this Gospel-book (Add MS 9381) was at St Petroc’s monastery from the 940s.  It does not contain elaborate decoration, and is obviously a ‘workaday’ copy; at the end of the manuscript there are tables of Gospel readings for use throughout the year.  There is an unfinished composition at the beginning of John’s Gospel and several large decorated initials in red and brown (see f. 50 above), but no Evangelist portraits. 

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A frame with five roundels and interlace panels, probably intended for a 'Christ in Majesty' miniature, Add MS 9381, f. 108v

The principal decoration is in the Canon tables (ff. 9r-13v), which have Celtic interlace and zoomorphic decoration; see the bird-like creature on the right in image below. A note inserted between the arches records the presence of the book at the altar of St Petroc’s and its use there:

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Canon tables with records added, Add MS 9381 f. 13r

The inscription reads:

Hoc est no[men] illius mulieris .i. medguistyl cum p[ro]genie sua .i. bleiduid, ylcerthon, byrchtylym; quos liberaverunt cleri s[an]c[t]i petroci sup[er] altare illius petroci, p[ro]
remedio eadryd rex, & p[ro] animab[us] illor[um]; coram istis testib[us] comayre p[re]spiter grifiud p[re]spit[er] etc..

(This is the name of the woman Medguistyl with her offspring Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym who were freed by the clerics of Saint Petroc on the altar of this St Petroc’s for the souls of Eadred the King and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc…)

Of course we know nothing of this woman and her three children with unpronounceable names, but it does make you wonder what the lives of these slaves would have been like in the ninth century.  Where were they from, how did they come to be slaves, and why were they freed?  We have no answers to these questions.

Sometimes the stories revealed by the records in the margins are a little more detailed, as is the following one in Old English:

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Records of manumissions, Add MS 9381 f. 8r

Her kyð on þissere bec þæt Aelsig bohte anne wifmann Ongynedhel hatte & hire sunu Gyðhicael æt  Ã¾urcilde mid healfe punde æt thære cirican dure on Bodmine & sealed Aelsige portgereva & Maccosse hundredesmann iiii pengas to tolle.  Þa ferde Aelsig to þe þa men bohte ynd nam hig & freode uppan Petrocys weofede æfre saclesl On gewitnesse þissa godera manna þæt wæs Isaac messepreost & Bledculf m.p. & Wunning m.p. & Wulfger m.p. & Grifiuð m.p. & Noe m.p. & Wurþicið m.p. & Aelsig diacon & Maccos & Teðion & Modredis sunu & Kynilm & Beorlaf & Dirling & Gratcant & Talan & gif hwa þas freot abrece, hebbe him wið Criste gemene.  Amen.

(Here is made known on this book that Aelsig had bought a woman Ongynedhel and her son Gyðhicael from þurcilde with half a pound at the church door at Bodmin, and paid to Aelsige the reeve and Maccos the hundredsman four pennies for toll.  Then Aelsig did what he had bought them for, and freed them on Petroc’s Altar, free of any liability.  On the witness of these good men: Isaac the mass-priest & Bledculf….. And if anyone should violate this freedom, may he lose Christ’s protection. Amen).

This shows that sometimes people bought slaves so that they could set them free and that in this case a toll was paid to the King or his representative for the pleasure of doing so – not terribly magnanimous on the part of His Majesty!

The names are also of interest.  Seven of them are Anglo-Saxon, including the freer of the slave, the reeve and hundredsman - in other words, those in authority, as you would expect.  Aelsige was a very popular name, as it is shared by three people (it does have more of a ring to it than John or David – perhaps it will make the list of the most popular names again one day!). Nine of the names, including the two slaves’, are Celtic and 2 are from the Old Testament - Isaac and Noe, or Noah.

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Chapter list of Matthew’s Gospel written in Caroline minuscule with added manumissions in Latin and Old English, Add MS 9381 f. 7v
                                                                                                   

Last but not least, the palaeography of this manuscript has long been of interest to scholars. The original gospels are written in a continental Caroline minuscule, the standard script used in France in this period.  Cornwall, however, was part of the Celtic world and so a form of Insular minuscule was used there in the ninth century.  The earliest manumissions are thought to date from the time of King Edmund (941-946), by which time Anglo-Saxon minuscule seems to have been widely adopted, though there is limited evidence and scripts varied considerably.  The additions in the Bodmin Gospels are mostly in Anglo-Saxon minuscule, but some of the later ones contain perhaps the earliest examples of Cornish Caroline script.  Notable are the Caroline ‘a’ and ‘g’, which are used even in the inscriptions in Old English. The contrast between the scripts is clearly visible in the above image, with additions by three different scribes. The full digital images now available online make this manuscript more accessible for palaeographical study.

- Chantry Westwell

25 February 2014

No Rest for the Wicked: Dante's Inferno

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Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is best-known for its gruesome catalogue of punishments suffered by the damned; and what punishments they are! Dante took great pleasure in devising hideous fates for the multitudes of the damned, and this included, for good measure, many people he knew personally. One can imagine that Dante relished sending to Hell those responsible for exiling him from Florence in 1301, not least because some of those named in the poem were still alive to read about the terrible fates in store for them. You have been warned -- be careful not to get on the wrong side of a poetic genius!

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Souls waiting for Charon to ferry them across the Acheron to Hell, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 7v).

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The lustful in the fire of Hell (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 109v).

But the poem isn’t called the Divine Comedy for nothing. Latin Commedia at this time simply meant a narrative poem, albeit one with lighter tone and supposedly a happy ending. Inferno, the description of Hell, is the best-known part, probably because we all secretly love the scandal and gore, as well as Dante’s gloriously passive-aggressive sniping at his foes. Yet the Comedy presents a journey through the entire Christian cosmos, continued in Purgatario and Paradiso respectively.

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Dante’s Dream (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 3r).

Humour is definitely an aspect of the poem appreciated by the illustrator of Egerton MS 943. This manuscript contains the entire Divine Comedy accompanied by 261 images, and was copied in the 14th century, not long after the work was composed, in the poet's Northern Italian homeland. Perhaps this manuscript's creators shared the same world-view which animates the poem, making it as close as possible to the way Dante would have illustrated it. Dante would certainly have appreciated the rendering of some of his imagined punishments. 145 images are currently online in the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, and the whole manuscript will soon appear on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Back to the torments of Hell. Here, for example, are the lustful, tossed around in a cyclone to represent their loss of reason, while Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, stand by in awe.

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The Carnal sinners (London, British Libary, MS Egerton 943, f. 10v).

And here the gluttonous are feasted on by the monstrous Cerberus. They include a man called Ciacco ‘hog’ who describes the woeful state of politics in Florence.

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Cerberus (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 12r).

The violent drown in a flaming sea and are shot at by arrows. The poem makes the archers in question centaurs, but interestingly our illustrator neglects to give them horse bodies.

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Centaurs by a river of blood (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 22r).

The treacherous are frozen up to their necks in ice. If anyone ever claims that something will happen when Hell freezes over, remind them that this actually happened in Dante's account! For Dante, Hell got colder as you went further down, representing the distance from God which is the true punishment for all the damned.

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Traitors in ice (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 57r).

Here, the arch-traitor, the Devil himself, stands at the freezing heart of the Inferno. In contrast to the menacing figure in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is quite pathetic in the Divine Comedy. A monstrous three-faced entity, he is utterly immobile and cannot even speak as his mouths are occupied chewing on the three greatest traitors of history: Judas Iscariot (all we can see of him here is his lower half poking out of Satan’s mouth) and two of the murderers of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. It's ever so slightly ridiculous that Dante regarded Caesar's death of Caesar to be the second worst crime in history (after Christ' betrayal). But Dante, like so many of his contemporaries, saw imperial Rome as a lost golden age, and he yearned for the unification of the divided and troubled Italian states. For him, Italy's troubles could be blamed directly on Brutus and Cassius.

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Lucifer devouring 3 traitors (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 61r).

After Satan, our two intrepid wanderers are spat out through the plughole of Hell and onto Mount Purgatory. And then we move from Inferno, to the exciting sequel, Purgatario. Here you can see Virgil warming himself on Satan’s feet which are poking up from the ice!

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Satan and the mouth of Hell (London, British Library, MS Egerton 943, f. 61v).

We will devote future blogposts to Dante's Purgatory and Paradise -- keep an eye on this blog!

Arthur Westwell

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.