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496 posts categorized "Medieval"

06 August 2013

Michael Wood and King Alfred

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The opening words of King Alfred's will, beginning "Ic Ælfred cinge", in an 11th-century copy: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v.

Earlier this year, Michael Wood, the historian and broadcaster, came to film some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts for his new television series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. Some of you may know Michael's previous books and programmes, such as The Story of England, The Story of India, Conquistadors, and In Search of the Dark Ages; and he is a familiar face at the British Library (for instance, he chaired a discussion with Seamus Heaney, Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby at our Beowulf festival in 2009, and he was a speaker at our Royal manuscripts conference in 2011).

Two of our curators, one conservator and several British Library manuscripts feature in episode one of the new series, to be broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00). It's always a pleasure to work with Michael Wood, who is a trained Anglo-Saxonist, and we look forward (like everyone else!) to watching his new programme, entitled "Alfred of Wessex". As ever, it will be available subsequently on the BBC iPlayer (United Kingdom viewers only).

Meanwhile, you might like to know that can see the whole of King Alfred's will on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site ... and you can read more about it here.

02 August 2013

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons on BBC Four

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A major television series featuring some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts is to air soon on BBC Four. Presented by Michael Wood, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons examines the careers of King Alfred the Great, the Lady Æthelflæd and King Athelstan respectively. Episode one, entitled "King Alfred", will be broadcast on Tuesday 6 August (21.00–22.00), and will then be available on the BBC iPlayer.



The beginning of King Alfred's will (London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v).


Alfred the Great (reigned 871–899) is perhaps the best-known Anglo-Saxon king. The son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded his three older brothers to the throne in 871. At that time, Viking invaders had conquered much of England, and Alfred struggled to prevent Wessex from succumbing to the same fate, until his victory over the Vikings at Edington in 878. Alfred's reign is also marked by the revival of learning – for example, he instructed that certain works be translated from Latin into English – and by the reform of the coinage, the issuing of new laws, and the creation of fortified towns (or "burghs"). Alfred's defence of Wessex, combined with his administrative reforms, ultimately paved the way for the formation of the kingdom of England during the 10th century.



A page from Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 71r).


Much of Michael Wood's television series was filmed on location at the British Library. The first episode promises to include Bald's Leechbook (BL MS Royal 12 D XVII) and the copy of Alfred's will found in the New Minster Liber Vitae (BL MS Stowe 944), the second of which can be seen in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. (You may also recall that we featured the other medieval copy of King Alfred's will in a recent blogpost.)

Episode one of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons is broadcast on BBC Four on 6 August (21:00–22:00). Episodes two and three will be screened on 13 August and 20 August.

01 August 2013

A Calendar Page for August 2013

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For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.

The aristocratic pursuits which have so characterised this manuscript (see here for April, May, June and July) take a back seat in these scenes from the calendar pages for August.  In the opening full-page miniature, a man and a woman are pausing from their labours in the fields to take some refreshment; the man is holding out a bowl towards another woman, who bears a basket of food and a jug (one hopes that it is full of wine).  A dog with a studded collar plays nearby, while behind the resting pair more peasants are at work harvesting grain.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are engaged in the rather disquieting game of 'cock-throwing', hurling sticks at a bird that has been tied to a stake.  On the following page are the saints for August, and a small roundel miniature of a woman holding a flower, for the zodiac sign Virgo.  Below, another group of men are snaring birds, using an owl to attract them. 


Calendar page for August with a miniature of labourers harvesting grain and resting in the fields, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 25v


Calendar page for August with a bas-de-page scene of a men snaring birds, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 26r

29 July 2013

The Last Will and Testament of Alfred the Great

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Alfred the Great (871-899) and Eadred (946-955) are the only Anglo-Saxon kings whose wills have survived to the present day, both of which are found in the same manuscript, British Library Additional MS 82931, known as the Liber de Hyda and a recent upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Opening page of the Liber de Hyda, Additional MS 82931, f. 1r

Although it was produced in the mid-15th century, the manuscript contains copies of much earlier documents dated between 455 and 1023, all relating to Hyde Abbey, Winchester. The documents are connected by a chronicle of Anglo-Saxon history beginning with the legends of the founding of Britain and ending abruptly (in mid-sentence) during the reign of King Cnut in 1023. Each of the later chapters of the chronicle is followed by an appendix containing wills, charters and legal documents from that period, dealing mainly with land grants to the abbey. Many of these documents are unique to this manuscript, so it is an important resource for Anglo-Saxon historians. The only copy of Eadred's will is found here, but a much earlier copy of King Alfred's will survives in an 11th-century manuscript, the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester (British Library, Stowe MS 944).


Opening page of Alfred the Great's will, Additional MS 82931, f. 10v

Alfred's will, drawn up c. 885, almost 15 years before his death, begins very much like a will today: 'Ic Aelfred cingc mid Godes gife 7 mid geþeahtunge Aeþelredes ercebisceopes 7 ealre Westseaxena witena gewitnesse ...' (I, King Alfred, by the grace of God and with the advice of Archbishop Æthelred, and the cognisance of all the West Saxon council ...). It describes the past and future succession of his kingdom, and Alfred's relationship with his father, brothers and nephews. In the preamble, the legacy of Alfred's father, Æthelwulf, is summarised, referring to how his four sons each succeeded to the kingdom in turn, and how they each made provisions for their sons. Alfred, the youngest and last to succeed, was keen to establish his right to the property distributed in his will; and so mention is made to a meeting of the West Saxon council, after his brother Æthelred's death, where the thegns upheld Alfred's claims to his brother's inheritance.

Having dismissed all rival claims to the property, Alfred proceeds to distribute land, first to his elder son Edward, then to the Old Minster at Winchester (where he was buried), to his younger son, daughters, brothers' sons and a kinsman named Osferth. In what appears to be a sentimental gesture, he bequeaths to his wife Ealhswith the places of his birth, Lambourn, and two greatest victories, Wantage and Edington. His treasure is then allocated to his children, his followers, his nephews and to the Church. A total of 2000 silver pounds was distributed, an indication of the great wealth Alfred accumulated during his reign. The king then appealed to all his successors to abide by the conditions of his will, his final gesture being to grant freedom to all the members of the council who had served him.

Eadred, one of the lesser-known Anglo-Saxon kings, was Alfred's grandson, who succeeded his brother Edmund to the throne in 946. After a short reign, he died young of a serious digestive ailment and may even have suffered from a physical disability. Despite this, Eadred had some military successes and was able to incorporate the Viking kingdom of York into his realm. The provisions made in his will are evidence of the tenuous nature of his control: Eadred left large quantities of gold and silver 'for the redemption of his soul and for the good of his people, that they may be able to purchase for themselves relief from want and from the heathen army if they [have] need'. The money was entrusted to church leaders for distribution in their respective areas. Eadred must have been concerned for the future of his kingdom, with his successor, his nephew Eadwig, only 14 years old when he acceded to the throne. Eadwig is not mentioned in the will and Eadred's mother is the only family member who is bequeathed property. However, Eadred appeared keen to leave nothing to chance when it came to the welfare of his soul; he specified that gold was to be given to 'every ecclesiastic who has been appointed since I succeeded to the throne'. Neither did he forget the members of his household, who each received a legacy.


Eadred's will, Additional MS 82931, f. 22r

In the Liber de Hyda the wills are copied in three languages: Latin, Old English and Middle English. On the page above can be seen the end of the Latin will, followed by the Old English version in the first column, under the rubric 'Incipit testamentu[m] Edredi Regis in lingua saxonica'. Near the end of the second column is the Middle English translation with the title 'Testamentu[m] Edredi Regis in lingua Anglica'. The first line of the will shows the change in written English between the 10th and the 15th centuries, which the scribe has faithfully reproduced. 'þis is Eadredes cinges cwide' becomes 'Thys ys kyng Eadredys testament'. The English letter 'þ' or 'thorn' is replaced by 'th' and the French term 'testament' has replaced 'cwide' (the Old English word for speech from which 'quoth' is derived), meaning 'words' or 'instructions’. Today, when we say 'last will and testament' we use another word of Old English origin (from 'willan', meaning to want or wish) alongside the French term.

22 July 2013

A Carolingian Masterpiece: the Moutier-Grandval Bible

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On Christmas Day of the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Europe’s first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.  Many people, including Charlemagne himself, saw the empire he had established (called Carolingian in his honour) as a continuation of that of the Romans, and the Christmas ceremony in Rome confirmed this in the eyes of the world.

Charlemagne was committed to resurrecting the classical scholarship of Greece and Rome that many felt was lost during the so-called Dark Ages, and he gathered intellectuals from around Europe to his court in Aachen.  One notable recruit was the English cleric Alcuin of York (c. 735 - 804), who joined Charlemagne's ambitious project around 781.  Alcuin became the leading figure in the group of scholars and artists assembled to stimulate the cultural revival that became known as the 'Carolingian Renaissance'. This Renaissance was focused on Charlemagne’s Court at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and monasteries such as Tours, where Alcuin was abbot.

The frontispiece to Genesis, depicting the Creation of Adam and Eve, their Temptation and Expulsion from the idealised landscape of Eden to labour on thorny soil, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 5v

One of Alcuin's contributions was to produce an emended version of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Subsequently a number of single volume Bibles were produced by teams of scribes and artists at his abbey of Tours, for distribution around Charlemagne’s empire.  We are delighted to announce that the one of the great products of that scriptorium, the Moutier-Grandval Bible, made under Abbot Adalhard (834-843), is now available online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website here.

Miniature of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the Evangelists and their symbols, , from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 352v

This immense pandect—it is an enormous 495 x 380 mm, and has 449 folios—is one of three surviving illustrated copies produced in Tours in the 9th century.  The four full-page miniatures reveal this manuscript’s debt to classical art.  The decorated initials are followed by square capitals and uncials which lead into the text script, which is a form of caroline minuscule, upgraded here by the introduction of some variant letter-forms such as 'a'.  Some twenty different scribes worked on the manuscript, a signal of the scale of book production at Tours during this period.


Decorated initial ‘F’(rater Ambrosius) from the beginning of Jerome’s prologue to the Bible in the form of a letter to Paulinus, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 2r

The manuscript takes its name from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval, in the canton of Berne, Switzerland, where it was housed from at least the 16th century until the 18th when it made its way into private hands.  Little evidence exists concerning the Bible’s early history, but it is possible that it belonged to Moutier-Grandval from the very beginning, as the Tours scriptorium routinely produced manuscripts for use in other foundations.


Miniature of the book ‘sealed with seven seals’ on an altar, being opened by the Lamb and the Lion of Juda, with the symbols of the Evangelists; below, an enthroned figure holding a canopied cloth (the vault of the heaven?) and an angel blowing a trumpet, at the end of Revelation, from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, France (Tours), c. 830 – c. 840, Add MS 10546, f. 449r

The enormous size and weight of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, as well as the fragile state of its binding, made it a particular challenge for us to digitise. A special cradle was employed to safely house the manuscript during photography, and a team of experts from a number of departments in the British Library worked together to transport, tend, and watch over it during the days of filming – have a look at some of our behind-the-scenes photos below!  And if there are any queries about our use (or rather, lack of use) of white gloves, please see our previous post on the subject here.

Moutier Grandval photography 1

Moutier Grandval photography 2

Special thanks are due to Andrea Clarke, Kathleen Doyle, and Julian Harrison of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscript department, Ann Tomalak and Gavin Moorhead of the British Library Centre for Conservation, and Antony Grant, Senior Imaging Technician.

19 July 2013

Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants

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With all of the excitement surrounding the impending arrival of Britain's newest Royal baby, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look at the medieval representations of birth - that blessed, everyday event.

Egerton MS 1070 f. 24v c13818-46
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the The Hours of René d'Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 24v

The most frequently depicted newborn in medieval art is, of course, the infant Christ, who is usually shown in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, a curious ox and ass, and occasionally choirs of angels (see above and below).  One imagines that the future king or queen of England will be born in a cozier setting, although perhaps with slightly less celestial fanfare.

Harley MS 1892 f. 8v c13685-05
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from a book of prayers and Gospel lessons, Netherlands or England, c. 1490 - c. 1510, Harley MS 1892, f. 8v

The births of saints and kings were also a popular subject for medieval illuminators.  The miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great below is a typical example, albeit one in a particularly luxurious setting. 

Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r E023482

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great, from Historia Alexandri Magni, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1485 - 1490, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

An image of another well-appointed birthing suite can be found in Harley MS 2278, a manuscript containing Lydgate's lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.  In the miniature on f. 13v (below), the new mother is being attended by a group of ladies, while another looks after the newborn, complete with tiny halo, before a roaring fire.  


Detail of a miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The 14th century Queen Mary Psalter was most likely produced for a royal woman, and includes quite a few bas-de-page paintings of nativities (with a small ‘n’).  A particularly charming example is that of St Nicholas, who can be seen lying swaddled in his cot, watched over by his tired mother and a busy servant.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 314v G70033-40a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the birth of St Nicholas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 - 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 314v

These scenes are overwhelmingly female ones, populated almost entirely by women (and of course their babies).  Men, when they are present, are most often onlookers, claiming an active role only when medical intervention seems to have been necessary.  The most common depiction of this type of exigency is with the birth of Julius Caesar, who according to legend, had to be cut from his mother’s womb (hence our current term ‘caesarian’).  This operation has been captured in medias res in Royal MS 16 G VIII, where the future emperor can be seen emerging from his otherwise fully-dressed mother, surrounded by medical men.  Caesar’s mother seems relatively calm in this miniature, but is slightly less so in another Royal manuscript, which shows us the immediate aftermath (both below).

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Royal MS 17 F II f. 9r Caesar K90057-89a
Detail of a miniature of the birth of Caesar, from La Grande histoire César, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479, Royal MS 17 F II, f. 9r

Not all the medieval depictions of childbirth and infancy fit into these familiar patterns, however.  A copy of the Roman de la Rose dating from c. 1490 – c. 1500 includes a miniature of the personification of Nature literally forging a baby, hammering his shape on an anvil while discarded attempts lie on the floor nearby. 

Harley MS 4425 f. 140r c13324-85
Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 - c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lion suckling an infant, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (probably Toulouse), with marginal illustrations added in England (London), c. 1300 - c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 121r

A bas-de-page scene in the Smithfield Decretals (above) shows a rather unusual caretaker for a newborn; illustrating a popular legend, a series of marginal miniatures show a lion suckling and tending to a baby.  And Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus includes a well-known episode in the (almost certainly apocryphal) life of Pope Joan, who was said to have masqueraded so successfully as a male pontiff that her true gender was only revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a religious procession (below).

Royal MS 16 G V f. 120r K040945
Detail of a miniature of Pope Joan giving birth, from Giovanni Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, France (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

By and large, however, most medieval births were seen as occasions of great joy, as they still are today.  It seems fitting to conclude with this miniature of the birth of St Fremund from Harley MS 2278, which shows the celebration of both men and nature at the blessed event.


Detail of a miniature of a rainbow after the birth of St Fremund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

17 July 2013

Follow the British Library

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This blog promotes the British Library's medieval manuscripts collections -- but did you know that there are many other ways to follow the British Library's activities? Our own Twitter account is @blmedieval, providing the latest news on our acquisitions, events and digitisation projects, with the British Library's main Twitter feed being @britishlibrary. We do our best to respond to your tweets -- don't be shy, give us a try! Then there is the British Library's Facebook page, great for finding out about our current Propaganda exhibition, reading the latest blog posts, and learning (for instance) what happened on famous days in history.




Apart from the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, the British Library has many other blogs which may interest our readers, ranging from Maps to Science, and Endangered Archives to Untold Lives, not to mention our Americas, Asian and African, and European Collections. There should be something to interest everyone! You can find a full list of the British Library's blogs here.

There are two simple ways to get in touch, via Twitter or by leaving a comment at the foot of our blog posts. We look forward to hearing from you!

15 July 2013

Magna Cartas to be Unified for First Time

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The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral are delighted to announce that their copies of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215, are to be unified for the first time in 2015. In an event to be staged at the British Library in London, scholars, curators and conservators closely involved in the study of Magna Carta will be given the unique opportunity to examine the Magna Cartas side-by-side. What's more, no fewer than one thousand, two hundred and fifteen (1,215) members of the public, selected in a ballot, will be able to view the original documents together for themselves.


Miniature of King John in Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum: St Albans, c. 1250 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 9r)

The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The three institutions have been working closely to organise this one-off event, which will initiate a year of global celebrations of this key constitutional document. Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library, says "Magna Carta is the most popular item in the Library’s Treasures gallery, and is venerated around the world as marking the starting point for government under the law. Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place, and will be a fantastic start to a year of celebrations." The unification is kindly supported by the law firm Linklaters, whose partner Richard Godden comments: "The arbitrary authority of the state is just as much a threat today as it was in the day of King John and the principles enshrined in Magna Carta remain essential not only in relation to personal liberty but to creating an environment in which business can prosper. We forget them at our peril."

Magna Carta (British Library)

Detail of one of the British Library's copies of the 1215 Magna Carta (London, British Library, MS Cotton Augustus II 106)

Magna Carta was issued by King John of England in June 1215, in an attempt to stave off the demands of his rebellious barons. Although Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III within ten weeks, revised versions were issued on behalf of John's successors Henry III (1216–1272) and Edward I (1272–1307), in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 respectively. On this final occasion Magna Carta was entered onto the statute roll, and thus became enshrined in English law. Its key clause has never been annulled, and has ensured Magna Carta's status as one of the foundations of international law, since it influenced the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other constitutional texts. The relevant clause (actually clauses 39 and 40 combined) reads as follows:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.


Miniature of King John hunting on horseback: England, 14th century (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D II, f. 116r)

Once Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) by King John, a number of copies were distributed to the sheriffs and bishops of England in June and July 1215. Just four of these copies of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta have survived, two of which are now held at the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury. The Lincoln and Salisbury Magna Cartas are presumably those sent to the respective cathedrals in 1215; the British Library's two copies both belonged to the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), one of them being sent to him in 1630 by the lieutenant of Dover Castle, and the other being found in a London tailor's shop. Only one of the four original documents still has its seal attached, but that copy (at the British Library) was damaged badly by a combination of fire in 1731 and a failed attempt at restoration in 1834.

Lincoln Cathedral's copy of Magna Carta on occasion travels for display at other institutions, while one of the British Library's two copies was loaned to the Library of Congress for the United States bicentennial celebrations in 1976. However, it is still exceedingly rare for these documents to leave their usual homes, and entirely unprecedented for them to be brought together in one place. The fact that they were written and distributed over a number of weeks in 1215 means that this is the first time ever that these copies of the original Magna Carta have been unified.

You can read more about Magna Carta, including seeing the Magna Carta viewer, a complete translation, and virtual curator videos, on the British Library's website.