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15 April 2013

French Prose Brut Chronicles in the British Library (And How to Find Them)

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Royal MS 20 A III f. 160r K90048-25

Diagram of a square table with 'C'est la fourme de la Table Rounde del Roy Arthur' written above, from a French Prose Brut, France, second half of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A III, f. 160r

 

The Prose Brut chronicles, a collection of 13th and 14th century texts, tell the history of Britain from its legendary origins through to the Plantagenet period when they were composed. They were first written down in Anglo-Norman, the French dialect of England, later adapted into Latin and Middle English, and eventually became one of the most popular accounts of English history in the medieval and early modern period. The Anglo-Norman prose version survives in at least 49 manuscripts, but there are almost 200 surviving copies in Latin and English.  In the British Library we have reputedly 15 Prose Brut manuscripts in French, 7 in Latin and 38 in English; it is therefore one of the most widely-represented non-religious texts in our manuscript collections.

The original version of the French Prose Brut opens with the founding of Britain by Brutus, nephew of Aeneas of Troy, beginning: 'En la noble cite de graunt Troie il i avoit un noble chivaler fort et puissaunt de cors qe avoit a noun Eneasa'. ('In the noble city of great Troy there was a noble knight, strong and powerful in body who had the name Aeneas').  In the long version of the text, this is often preceded by a short 'prequel' known as Des Grantz Geanz, which tells the story of the first discovery of the island by Albina and her sisters, which is why the new land came to be known as Albion. 

 

Royal MS 19 C IX f. 8r detail c1810-06a

Detail of a miniature of Albina and her sisters, daughters of King Diodicias of Persia, the monstrous women who murdered their husbands and founded the kingdom of Albion in Britain, from a French Prose Brut, France of the Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C IX, f. 8r

 

The  early legends are filled with fantastical events, including those in the stories of King Arthur. The narrative gradually becomes more realistic, though, as it it moves through the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the more contemporary events of the Norman and Plantagenet period, representing an early attempt at factual historical narrative.

Manuscripts of the Prose Brut in Anglo-Norman French

Here is a list of British Library manuscripts containing this text, with links to our online catalogues where images and further information are available.

I. The 'Common Text'

The British Library has two of the 5 surviving manuscripts of the earliest version of the chronicles to 1272, known as the 'common' version as it forms the basis for most of the later accounts. Our Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue contains short descriptions (links provided) and they are accessible to scholars in our Manuscripts Reading Room.

Additional MS 35092, ff. 5-144 (mid 14th-century)

Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (14th century)

 

Royal MS 20 A XVIII f. 150v K90048-17

A genealogical diagram illustrating the lineage of William the Conqueror, after which he is introduced in the text: 'Cesty William Bastard Duc de Normandy fust vailliant chevalier' ('This William the Bastard Duke of Normandy was a valliant knight…'), from a Chronicle of England ( the 'Anonimalle Chronicle'), England, 14th century, Royal MS 20 A XVIII, f. 150v


II. The Later Versions and Continuations in Anglo Norman French

Of the 13 remaining manuscripts, 4 are in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with descriptions and images.

Royal MS 20 A XVIII (14th century)

Royal MS 19 C IX (15th century)

Royal MS 20 A III (second half of the 14th century; the manuscript also contains Gautier of Metz' L'image du Monde)

Harley MS 200 (2nd-3rd quarter of the 15th century)

 

Harley MS 200 f. 2r c12050-03

Miniature of the king of France being presented with the attributes of his throne (the crown, the helm, the cloak, the sword, the fleur de lis, etc.) by bishops and dignitaries.  This miniature was painted in Paris, c. 1500, and was bound together, probably in the 17th century, with the manuscript containing the Brut and other chronicles, which was copied about 50 years earlier. Harley MS 200, f. 2r

 

The Prose Brut manuscripts in the Cotton collection are in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

An outline entry for each manuscript can be found by searching under the manuscript name:

Cotton MS Cleopatra D III, ff. 74r-182v

Cotton MS Cleopatra D VII, ff. 76r-79v (hand 2), 80-139v (hand 1), 140-182v (hand 2)

Cotton MS Domitian A X, ff. 14r-87v

Cotton MS Julius A I, ff. 51r-53v (fragment, damaged by fire)

 

More to follow on the Brut.  Our collection of English Prose Brut manuscripts is even more comprehensive, and there are some beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the fifteenth century.  Watch this space for details.

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- Chantry Westwell

12 April 2013

Not Always Bad News Birds: The Caladrius

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With apologies for the tortured reference to our previous post on medieval owls!  Regular readers will know that this blog has an ongoing series about animals in medieval manuscripts; our menagerie so far has included dogscats, beavers, hedgehogselephants, and more.  To shake things up in time for the weekend, let us turn our attention to an animal that you might not recognise as readily as you would a Lolcat or Mrs Tiggy-Winkle -- the caladrius bird.

 

Harley 4751 f. 40 detail

Detail of a miniature of a caladrius perched on the bed of a king, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 40r

 

Although they are little-known today, caladrius birds were common features in medieval bestiaries.  The caladrius, we are told in the bestiary text, makes its home in the courts of kings, and is pure white 'like the swan'. The dung of the caladrius was believed to cure blindness, but this remedy was rather a mixed blessing since it required the direct application of guano in the eyes of the afflicted.  But the real value of the caladrius was in its infallible prognostic abilities.  If it was brought into a sickroom and turned away from the man or woman within, that person would surely die.  If, however, the caladrius kept his gaze on the ill person and 'directed itself towards his face' (sometimes this is depicted quite literally; see below), it was a different story.  After staring down the sick man or woman, the caladrius would fly into the air, taking the illness with it, and the patient was destined to make a full recovery. 

 

Sloane 3544 f. 24 detail

Detail of a miniature of a rather alarming caladrius on the sickbed of a man who will be cured, from a bestiary, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 3544, f. 24r

 

Outside of manuscripts, only two medieval depictions of the caladrius survive: on a much-worn piece of 12th century sculpture adorning the village church of St Mary's at Alne, near York in England, and in a panel of a 13th century stained-glass window on the cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Lyon, France. But knowledge of the caladrius bird's amazing abilities must have been fairly widespread, as they can be found depicted in a number of manuscript miniatures without any explanatory text.  A black version of the caladrius, for example, is shown in a French Bible miniature in the act of curing the prophet Tobias. 

 

Harley 616 f. 259r

Detail of a miniature of Tobias in bed, stretching out his hands towards a flying black caladrius bird, at the beginning of Tobit, from a Bible (imperfect), France (Paris), last quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 616, f. 259r

 

And an interesting double act can be found in the bas-de-pages of facing folios in the Queen Mary Psalter.

 

Royal 2 B. vii f. 89v detail

Royal 2 B. vii f. 90r detail

First the good news, then the bad… detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a caladrius bird indicating that a sick man will get well, and a detail of relations mourning at the bed of a man who will die, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 89v-90r

 

Caladrius birds also make an appearance in the medieval histories of Alexander the Great, where they are included amongst the marvels Alexander encounters during his travels in the east. Unlike the pure white bestiary-caladrius, those in Alexander manuscripts are often depicted with tan or yellowish feathers (see below).

 

Royal 20 B. xx f. 83r detail

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great enthroned, being presented with caladrius birds, from Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre), France (Paris), c. 1420, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83r

 

It is possible that this tawny version of the caladrius might be a reference to much older sources.  The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) names it as the 'icterus' because of its colour.  Probably not coincidentally, he also mentions its particular skill at curing those afflicted with jaundice ('ictericus'); one of the unpleasant symptoms of that disease is, of course, yellowing of the skin.  Classical scholars often referred to jaundice as the 'morbus regius' ('royal disease') because it was believed that the touch of a king could cure it, and this early association might explain why caladrius birds are so often shown with royalty and inside regal settings.

 

Royal_ms_15_e_vi_f021v_detail

Detail of a miniature of Alexander with caladrius birds and ill people, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 21v

 

It is difficult to find many references to the caladrius after the 15th century, but this amazing avian has experienced a very minor renaissance in recent decades.  The obvious associations with diagnosis and healing make it an ideal symbol for medicine, and the caladrius has been included in coats of arms recently granted to the Medical University of South Africa, the South African Medical and Dental Council, and the Isle of Wight Health Authority.  Perhaps most charmingly, a caladrius bird featured in a 1978 'Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber' sketch on the programme Saturday Night Live, during which the barber/doctor Theodoric (played by the incomparable Steve Martin) tries to use the bird (played by an uncooperative live dove) to diagnose an ultimately-doomed patient.

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- Sarah J Biggs

09 April 2013

What Can We Learn from a Scribal Colophon?

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Arundel_ms_66_f029v

Astronomical table of John Killingworth, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 29v


Arundel MS 66 is a massive manuscript containing a highly sophisticated collection of astronomical and astrological works.  It combines texts on judicial astrology and geomancy with astronomical tables, which were necessary tools to calculate the movements of the planets and stars. As a comprehensive guide to techniques of forecasting the future, it also contains an interesting selection of English political prophecies.

Although its early provenance is untraceable, it has long been suggested that Henry VII was the original patron or recipient of the codex, based largely on the royal portrait and arms included in a miniature on f. 201r (see below), as well as several heraldic badges incorporated in borders, initials and miniatures throughout the text.

 

Arundel_ms_66_f201r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Henry VII, surrounded by his courtiers, overseeing an astrologer making a prediction for the forthcoming year, at the beginning of a treatise on the Revolution of the year of the world, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 201r

 

Amongst the elements that can be tied to Henry VII and his family is the friendly Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, painted against the Tudor livery colours of white and green; you may remember this miniature from the opening displayed during the Royal Exhibition. This stand-out Red Dragon was used in Arundel MS 66 in the place of the more usual image of the constellation Draco, in a section containing Ptolemy's 'Catalogue of Stars'.

 

Arundel_ms_66_f033v_detail

Detail of the constellation Draco, at the beginning of Ptolemy's Catalogue of Stars, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 33r

 

The main text in this manuscript is the Decem tractatus astronomiae (or Liber Astronomiae), a popular handbook of astrology composed by the famous Italian astrologer Guido Bonatti of Forli (1207-1296). An otherwise blank leaf at the end of this text bears a note by the scribe, John Wellys, which may give some insight into the production of the book.

 

Arundel_ms_66_f249r_detail

Detail of John Wellys' note at the end of Guido Bonatti's Decem tractatus astronomiae, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 249r

 

The note reads:

'Finitur hic liber Guydonis Bonacti de Forlivio anno Christi 1490 30 die junij hora 12 minuta 24a per me Johannem Wellys compositus et renovatus et anno H. r. 7. 4to pontificatus sanctissimi in Christo patris nostri Innocenti pape 4to [sic for 8to] 5to'.

Which translates to:

This book by Guido Bonacti of Forlì was finished in the year of Christ 1490, on the 30th day of June, 12 hours and 24 minutes, compiled and brought up-to-date by me John Wellys in the 4th year of K[ing] H[enry] vii and in the 5th year of the holy pontificate in Christ of our father pope Innocent IV [sic for VIII].

Whether John Wellys was a trained astrologer or not, he dated the terminus of his work with an extraordinary precision which reminds one of the language often used in astrological charts. Another good example can be found in Egerton MS 889, which describes the birth date of Henry VI in a similarly detailed way:  'Nativitas Henrici sexti anno Christi imperfecto 1421°, 5a die Decembris post meridiem, 3 horam 20m 56s, die Veneris, hora Saturni (Nativity of Henry VI in the imperfect year of Christ 1421, 5th day of December, in the afternoon, at 3 hours 20 minutes and 56 seconds, on the day of Venus, in the hour of Saturn).

 

Egerton 889 f. 5 detail

Diagram of the horoscope for the birth of Henry VI, from an astronomical and astrological compendium (the 'Codex Holbrookensis'), England (Cambridge), between c. 1420 and 1437, Egerton MS 889, f. 5r

 

In his note in Arundel MS 66, Wellys also scrupulously calculated the regnal years of Henry VII and Innocent VIII. Both the king and the pope came into power in August, in 1485 (22 August) and 1484 (29 August), respectively. Arundel MS 66 was completed in June of 1490, therefore in the fourth year of Henry's reign and the fifth year of Innocent's pontificate.

John Wellys's inscription, jotted down on a blank leaf, appears to be more an informal note than an polished colophon. What, then, was its purpose, and what does this note tell us about the scribe's work? The way Wellys used verbs is somewhat striking. He preferred to describe his activity as 'componere' (to put together or arrange) rather than the more commonly used 'scribere' (to write), implying that his task involved a work of compilation. He also stressed the fact that he brought the text up to date ('renovatus'). Indeed, a closer look at Wellys's rendering of Bonatti's Liber astronomiae shows a great deal of editorial work. The scribe introduced his own division of the text into not six but seven parts and therefore had to alter Bonatti's preface. In the Tractatus de Electionibus, one of the tracts forming the Liber astronimiae, his ingenuity went even further. Wellys was clearly transcribing his text from an imperfect model. The Tractatus in question contains several gaps and an imperfect beginning.

 

Arundel_ms_66_f129r_detail

Detail of the imperfect beginning of Tractatus de Electionibus, with a miniature of Henry VII’s badge of a crowned tree, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 129r

 

Wellys did not bother with the two chapters missing at the beginning of the tract, instead simply electing to open with chapter 3. However, a large portion missing at the end seems to have caught his attention. By this point in his labours he was working on royal commission, which may have had something to do with his diligence! Not having another copy of Bonatti's book at hand, Wellys decided to find the missing text elsewhere. On ff. 143v-147v, he seamlessly replaced Bonatti's text on elections with an extract from a similar work, De iudiciis astrorum (On the judgements of the stars) by the Arabic author Haly ibn Ragel. Did King Henry ever notice the difference?

 

Arundel_ms_66_f143v_detail

Detail of the incipit of Haly ibn Ragel's De iudiciis astrorum interpolated into Guido Bonatti's Tractatus de Electionibus, with the change of ink colour marking the beginning of the interpolation, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 143v

 

To cover up his textual replacement, Wellys provided an inaccurate rubric at the end of the interpolated passage, which reads, 'expliciunt electiones libri Guidonis' (here ends the elections of Guido's book).

 

Arundel_ms_66_f147v_detail

Detail of the explicit of Haly ibn Ragel's De iudiciis astrorum interpolated into Guido Bonatti's Tractatus de Electionibus, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 147v

 

Wellys copied part of the replacement text in an added quire, in a different colour of ink from the rest of the manuscript. He used the same light brown ink to supply the last two rubrics of the Tractatus de ymbribus et aeris, the last tract of Bonatti's book (f. 248r), possibly during the same campaign of revisions.  If not for his unusually worded colophon-note, I would have never discovered John Wellys's trick!

- Joanna Fronska

This post is based on my forthcoming article 'The Royal Image and Diplomacy: Henry VII’s Book of Astrology (British Library, Arundel MS 66)' in the Electronic British Library Journal.   

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05 April 2013

Calling All Manuscript Sleuths: The Macclesfield Alphabet Book

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Add_ms_88887_f014r

Folio with a portion of a sample alphabet, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 14r

 

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book is an exquisitely beautiful c. 15th-century 'pattern book'. It contains the most complete set of designs for manuscript decoration known to have survived from late-medieval Britain. It might have been used as a model book for scribes to copy from whilst creating luxury books, or perhaps as a display of an artist's or workshop's skills, to show to potential patrons.  Until a few years ago, its existence was unknown, with the British Library holding the only other known English late medieval pattern book (Sloane MS 1448a, see here for more). Our manuscript, now British Library Additional MS 88887, was in the collection of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle and when it came onto the market in 2009, the Library was able to purchase it using funds raised from benefactors, including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, and many private individuals.

 

Add_ms_88887_f026r

Folio with a sample alphabet, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 26r

 

The manuscript contains a collection of 14 different sets of specimen initials or letters in alphabetical order in the Gothic script of the 15th century, with later additions in the Humanistic script of the early 16th century. The 'ABCs' are wonderfully illustrated, including letters formed using animals and people. Viewing the images online, one cannot help but be captivated by the inventiveness of the artists, and wonder at the work's real purpose, as some of the designs do not seem to have been created for use in real books.

 

Add_ms_88887_f045r

Folio with samples of border decoration, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 45r

 

Along with the alphabets there are also included colourful designs for the borders and margins of manuscripts.  Additionally, on f. 9v there is a mysterious drawing of an uprooted tree with a shield inscribed 'R.B.' (see below). An emblem, perhaps a rebus in colours with gold with three flowers and two gold gloves hanging down and the word 'cli[m]i[n]g' or 'ch[ar]i[n]g', is on f. 46r (see below). The full significance of these images is yet to be determined, so if there are any manuscript sleuths out there who have the answer, please send us your ideas!

 

Add_ms_88887_f009v

'R.B' emblem, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 9v

 

Add_ms_88887_f046r_detail

Detail of a rebus, England, 1475-1525, British Library Add MS 88887, f. 46r

 

- Chantry Westwell

02 April 2013

A Calendar Page for April 2013

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

 

Add_ms_24098_f021v

Calendar page for April with a courting scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 21v

 

The calendar for April opens with a typical scene for spring; an aristocratic couple are shown courting in a walled and flowering garden.  The richly-dressed lady's dog is nearby, lapping water from the garden's fountain.  Behind the couple, a nobleman is preparing to go hawking, another commonly-depicted pursuit for this time of year.  The theme of fertility and new life is echoed at the top of the miniature, where a pair of storks can be seen building their nest on the top of a chimney.  Below, six men are playing a game with a bat and ball.  On the following folio is a roundel with a painting of a bull, for the zodiac sign Taurus. At the bottom of this page a sherpherd and his bagpipe-playing companion are looking over their flock of sheep, complete with new lambs and a single goat.

 

Add_ms_24098_f022r

Calendar page for April with a bas-de-page scene of shepherds, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 22r

01 April 2013

Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library

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Researchers at the British Library have found sensational evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Hidden within the pages of a 12th-century manuscript is not only a description but also a drawing of the beast known to millions as Nessie.

 

Loch_Ness_Mist British_library_london[1]
Loch Ness in Scotland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; image of the British Library, London, from Wikipedia

 

Walter of Bingham (d. c. 1197) was a minor cleric from Nottinghamshire who, unable to fulfill his vow to go on the Third Crusade, made a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Scotland. William's own manuscript of Itinerarium Scotiae (The Journey Through Scotland) has been long neglected , but shows the author's fascination with Scottish history, customs and wildlife. One commentator has remarked that "Walter of Bingham is to Scotland what Marco Polo is to China". The tone of The Journey Through Scotland emulates the writings of Walter's famous mentor, Gerald of Wales, who wrote accounts of Ireland and Wales in the 1180s and 1190s.

 

Walter of Bingham

 

Walter’s encounter with Nessie came one summer evening, as he approached the banks of the River Ness. Students of the Loch Ness Monster will be aware that in the earliest account, found in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (written around AD 700), Nessie was seen not in the loch but in the neighbouring river; and this is corroborated by Walter’s story. Seeking safe passage across the river, Walter of Bingham asked a group of fishermen mending their nets, but they rejected his request with terror in their eyes. Next, walking downstream, Walter encountered a young boy dragging his coracle along the shore. Hesitating at first, the boy agreed to row Walter of Bingham across in return for a silver coin. They crossed without mishap, much to Walter’s displeasure, for he was self-confessedly thrifty; but as he watched the coracle heading back to the other shore, a great beast with fire sparking from its eyes suddenly erupted from below the waters, uttered an almighty roar, and then dragged the coracle and its unhappy occupant beneath the waves.

 

BL Project multi #0001379The Loch Ness Monster, and the boy in the overturned coracle, as seen with the naked eye (London, British Library, MS Cotton Hilarius A. XV, f. 104r). The page is now exceedingly faded, but the image can be recovered using RZS©.

 

Walter of Bingham’s account provides firm proof of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster in the 12th century. But what is perhaps more remarkable is the drawing of Nessie which accompanies the text, now severely faded and barely visible with the naked eye. The drawing’s significance was first recognized by an international team of imaging scientists, cryptozoologists and manuscript experts, who for the past year have been analysing the British Library’s pictures of mythical beasts. Using a pioneering technique known as Re-Zoom Spectroscopy (RZS), the scientists took multiple photographs of the page in question, which were overlaid and processed using a “Guggenheim manipulator”. The resulting image demonstrates that Walter of Bingham made a careful depiction of Nessie, and can now be revealed as the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster.

 

BL Project RZS spec #0004179The Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©. Walter of Bingham is depicted on the right (an early example of a self-portrait), with the wretched occupant of the coracle about to be tossed into the water.

 

The shape of Nessie as recorded by Walter is hugely significant. Traditionally, the Loch Ness Monster is depicted in serpentine form, often with long humps protruding above the waves. The beast seen by Walter of Bingham most closely resembles a gigantic bear, and experts suggest that it may have been an enormous cousin of the modern-day Grizzly Bear or Kodiak Bear, now restricted to North America, or perhaps a descendant of the extinct Cave Bear. To judge by the survival of animal bones, the presence of a massive bear in remote, 12th-century Scotland is not entirely unexpected, and its behaviour indicates that, when observed by Walter of Bingham, it may have been defending its territory or guarding its young. But this is the first occasion that Nessie has received plausible identification as a bear: perhaps a relict population of bears survived in the vicinity of Loch Ness for many years, giving rise to the legend which surrounds it.

 

Cotton Hilarius final desaturated detailCould this be the oldest picture of Nessie? (recovered using RZS©).

 

Angus McFadden, a veteran monster watcher, believes that Loch Ness still holds many secrets. As he recently declared, “If you don’t see what you don’t see, and you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you know what you don’t see?”

We are extremely grateful to Professor Otto Haas (Osnabrück), Dr Ida Winchester (Delaware) and their team for sharing their research with us. A full account of the discovery will be published in the Journal of Applied Cryptozoology, but for regular updates subscribe to our Twitter feed, @blmedieval.

 

Cotton Hilarius final full colour reconstructionAn artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster, restoring what are believed to be the original colours, based on detailed study of the pigments used in comparable western European drawings (Sarah J Biggs, 2013).

29 March 2013

Medieval Anchoresses and the Ancrene Riwle

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Sometime in the early 13th century, three laywomen, sisters of noble birth, had themselves enclosed for life in a small chamber in a church somewhere not far from Worcester. They were part of a spiritual movement which began with the desert fathers in the 4th century, whereby holy men and women, known as anchorites (or anchoresses), withdrew completely from the world, choosing a life of severity and solitude consisting of a daily ritual of liturgy and prayers. In a macabre ceremony that included the Office of the Dead, various prayers were said as someone was bricked up in a small room within a church, with only a small window to receive the sacrament and a slit affording a view of the altar. A small number of medieval churches survive with these cells or anchorholds intact, like at St James’s church in Shere, Surrey.

Photo1-anchoress[1]
Image courtesy of ourfatherplay.com

From the 13th to the 15th centuries, there are records of well over 100 people in England applying to their bishop to become anchorites, with the majority being women. However it would seem that withdrawal from the world did not necessarily mean solitude, as anchoresses had servants who brought them food and messages from outside and their advice and prayers were sought by local people, so that some became central figures in their communities.

We know much of this, and particularly about the three anchoresses in question, because in about 1230 a book of instruction was written for them, known as ‘Ancrene Riwle’. It was later adapted for other communities of anchorites under the title ‘Ancrene Wisse’. In all, there are 9 surviving manuscripts of the rule in Middle English, 4 in French and 4 in Latin: 15 in total. The British Library has four of the manuscripts in English, including the earliest copy of the original ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (Cotton Cleopatra C VI), dating from 1225-30, which is nowfavailable in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Cotton_ms_cleopatra_c_vi_f004r
London, British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra C VI, f. 4r.

This is a book that has been made for daily use, written in an informal script, probably by a cleric, with decorated initials to make navigation around the text easier. A second scribe has made additions and notes in the margins shortly afterwards, and then much later a third scribe has modernised and annotated the text. It contains guidelines for daily prayers and instructions to the anchoress on how to regulate her senses and her inner life; it deals with sin and confession and finally divine love. Practical issues of clothing, food, keeping pets and employing servants are also covered.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Ancrene Wisse is the language in which it is written, a regional and seemingly archaic brand of English in a form that is standardised across a group of religious texts copied in the same area about 150 years after the Norman Conquest. Very little written English survives from this period, when Latin (and increasingly French) was the language of learning and culture. The vocabulary contains loan words from French (‘par charite’ for through charity) and Norse (‘feolahes’ for companions) and the style is colloquial, but the spelling is closer to the written form of English from before the Conquest. For this reason there have been many studies made by historical linguists and dialectologists of this text, the original and most famous by the distinguished Old English scholar and writer of Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien, who in 1929 first identified and described the language of the Ancrene Wisse in a Cambridge manuscript (Corpus Christi College MS 402), also from the early 13th century.

Cotton_ms_cleopatra_c_vi_f146r
London, British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra C VI, f. 146r.

The British Library has three other manuscripts of the work, two from the same period, 1225-1250, and also in the Cotton collection, one from Worcestershire and one from Cheshire. The second has been adapted and contains pronouns which suggest it may have been for a male audience. Thirdly, a later version attributed to the 15th-century preacher, William Lichfield, is in the Royal collection: Royal MS 8 C I.

27 March 2013

What's in Our Treasures Gallery?

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Queen Emma and King Cnut at the altar of the New Minster, Winchester, England, 11th century: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r.

Visitors to the British Library at St Pancras can often see a wide range of books and manuscripts in our Treasures Gallery, ranging from Shakespeare to the Beatles. In the exhibition cases devoted to medieval manuscripts you can currently view several of our greatest Anglo-Saxon books, including the New Minster Liber Vitae (see here for a post about the equivalent book from Durham Cathedral) and the foundation charter of the same abbey. You can already see both items (the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, and the New Minster foundation charter, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII) on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The frontispiece of the New Minster charter, England, c. 966: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v.

Meanwhile, currently on display in the exhibition cases devoted to medieval literature is the unique manuscript of Beowulf. Made around the year AD 1000, this manuscript contains not only the sole surviving copy of Beowulf, the longest epic poem in the Old English language, but also the texts of Judith, the Marvels of the East, and the letter of Alexander to Aristotle.

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A typical page from the Beowulf manuscript, England, c. 1000, which was damaged by fire in 1731: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 176r.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, is open 7 days a week, and is free to visit. We regret that on occasion items have to be removed temporarily for use in our Reading Rooms; and we also operate a rotation policy, because many of the oldest and most fragile items in our collections cannot be kept on display for indefinite periods.

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