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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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02 April 2017

A Calendar Page for April 2017

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Happy April — it's time to have more fun with the calendar pages of Additional MS 36684! If you’ve missed it, find out more information on the manuscript in January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our original calendar post from 2011.

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Calendar pages for April, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 4v–5r

April is a fruitful month of rebirth, according to Chaucer’s famous opening to his Canterbury Tales (which he wrote about 80 years after this calendar was produced). Fittingly, our labour of the month can be seen merrily pruning a healthy, green plant at the bottom of the page. We especially like the small hybrid figure sporting a full set of stag antlers next to him, and the figures with dinosaur bodies in the margin below.

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Detail of the labour of the month for April, Add MS 36684, f. 4v

Equally fittingly, the artist underscores the idea of April as a fertile month at the start of the calendar with the appearance of two nude frolickers. On the far right of the page, we have a lady reaching up to touch a branch above her, and on the left, another figure, modesty protected by the border, who has unfortunately been decapitated by a later owner when they had the pages trimmed. 

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Detail of a nude woman, Add MS 36684, f. 4v

On the facing page, our zodiac figure for April is the bull Taurus, merrily contemplating the trumpeting dogs outside his miniature Gothic niche.

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Detail of Taurus, Add MS 36684, f. 5r

The calendar pages include the usual notes of specific saints’ feast days, and we can also take a guess as to the date of Easter, arguably the most significant Christian feast day, during at least part of the time the manuscript was in use. There is a colophon dated to 1318 on f. 78r of the manuscript, and we can compute that Easter Sunday fell on 23 April in 1318.

As a reminder, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope you are all frolicking as happily as our marginal figures!  

Taylor McCall
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01 April 2017

The Chipping Sodbury Bestiary

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In 1932, one of the most sensational discoveries of modern times took place in a country house just outside Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. A local antique dealer, Marmaduke Snodgrass, had been taking afternoon tea with the owner, known to posterity as 'the Barking Baronet', when he spotted an old parchment book wrapped in a pair of flannel pyjamas. Realising this book's huge significance, Snodgrass took it to the British Museum Library in London, where experts identified the manuscript as containing the only surviving copy of the semi-legendary De bestiis ridiculosis.

This manuscript remains in private hands, having been inherited by the Barking Baronet's descendants. The British Library is delighted to be able to issue today the first images of what is now known as the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary. De bestiis ridiculosis is a remarkable text, describing a range of mythical beasts that are rarely found in other medieval bestiaries.

The Gibbous

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An ape-like creature related to the Yeti and native to jungle regions of the Indian sub-continent. The 14th-century writer Jordanus of Moronicus noted that this creature only emerged from its hidden den on nights of the gibbous moon, in order to gather carambola, also known as starfruit. This line drawing shows a female Gibbous carrying her young.

The Horned Groundsnoort

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Commonly used by farmers in southern France and Tuscany to snuffle out truffles, the Horned Groundsnoort is a beast with a vicious temper when provoked. The anonymous author of this bestiary prescribes that the farmer should always maintain a safe distance from the Groundsnoort, using a 'snoort-rod' if one is at hand.

The Golden Ass

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Most asses are a dull grey or brown in colour, but occasionally a golden mutant is born. The Golden Ass has an exaggerated sense of its own self-worth, and refuses to be steered or ridden unless bribed with the famed golden turnip.

The BoJangle

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A musical bird native to Timbuktu. During the summer months, the male BoJangle performs popular show tunes on musical instruments as part of an intricate mating ritual to attract females. Here is depicted the male BoJangle holding what seems to be a tambourine.

The Legend of Holyfield

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that, in the year 873, King Alfred the Great of Wessex defended his kingdom from attack by a 'fire-spewing dragon' (OE: fyrdraca), using only his bare fists. The encounter took place near the village of Holyfield, and is commemorated to this day by the drinking of prodigious amounts of 'fire-water' every Friday night. Despite losing his left ear in this battle, Alfred left the field victorious.

The Quonk

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When startled by a hunter, the quonk will lay a pair of eggs, which hatch around the full moon. Quonks are described in De bestiis ridiculosis as among the most noble of beasts, and impossible (and undesirable) to tame.

The Dweezil

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Half-dog, half-weasel, dweezils have an almost unique ability to smell with their tongues, a feat they share today with the wombat and the spiny echidna. Older readers of this Blog may be familiar with the arcane proverb, 'A dweezil in the hand gathers no moss'.

The Tree Hedgehog

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Now extinct over most of its former range, the tree hedgehog was much prized as a delicacy in Roman times. Pliny the Elder was reputedly dining on tree hedgehogs and egret tongues, washed down with bull's milk, when he watched Mount Vesuvius erupting in AD 79.

The Dancing Crane

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Not to be confused with its more common cousin, the Skating Crane, the Dancing Crane is notorious for breaking out into intricate stepping routines whenever it gets excited. Some ornithologists have compared its dance technique to the Macarena.

The Giant Bee

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One of the most unpredictable beasts is the Giant Bee of South America. Bee keepers in the foothills of the Andes tell terrible tales of their encounters with these winged creatures, which have the ability to lift a man from the ground before depositing him in a dunghill.

The Hebridean Half-Whit

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Sightings of the Half-Whit are becoming increasingly rare, no doubt due to global warming and tighter regulation of the local licensing laws. The Half-Whit is distinguished by having two heads (one in the usual place, the other at the end of its tail), and by its unorthodox mating call, likened by experts to the sound of bagpipes crossed with the scratching of nails on a chalkboard. 

All images of the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary are courtesy of the descendants of the Barking Baronet. We are extremely grateful to them for kindly giving permission for us to feature this beautiful bestiary on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval) for more manuscript discoveries.

31 March 2017

Internship in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

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Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department, for doctoral and post-doctoral students in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or another relevant subject.

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Large zoo-anthropomorphic initial from the Historia naturalis of Pliny the Elder, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

The focus of the internship will be to enhance our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue, by creating or enriching catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts and publicising them in blog posts and other interpretative material. The intern will assist curators working on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts. The intern will be involved in others aspects of the work of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries and providing talks for students and visitors, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care. During the internship at the British Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £9.75 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start in July 2017 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers.

Applicants are asked to include answers to the following questions within their Supporting Statement:

  1. Please give examples of your experience in cataloguing medieval manuscripts. 2. Please provide examples of your experience in writing about your research or about manuscripts for a general audience.

Closing Date: 1 May 2017

Interviews will be held on 19 May. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

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29 March 2017

Medieval depictions of the Crusades

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The Levantine Crusades, military campaigns with the avowed purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Christian holy sites in the Near East, took place between 1095 and 1272 or 1291. Long after the Crusader states fell, however, they loomed large in the imaginations of medieval writers and artists, who widely copied and illustrated accounts of the Crusades.

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Crusaders at the walls of Antioch, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 101v

The British Library holds a series of manuscripts created in areas controlled by the Crusaders. The Crusaders established four kingdoms in the Holy Land, one of which, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was ruled over by a series of descendants of the first ruler, the Frankish knight, Godfrey of Bouillon. From 1131–1143 the Kingdom was ruled jointly by Fulk and Melisende, for whom the gorgeous Melisende Psalter was probably made.

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The Wedding of Fulk and Melisende, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

The Library also possesses a missal, a sacramentary and a copy of the Histoire universelle, all of which may have been made in Acre, the Crusaders' last stronghold in the Levant. It is worth focusing on depictions of the Levantine Crusades in later manuscripts. Two later manuscripts with vernacular accounts of the Crusades have recently been digitised: Royal MS 15 E I and Egerton MS 1500. These show how the Crusades continued to capture the imagination of western writers and artists. 

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Heraclius brings back the true Cross to Jerusalem, with full borders incorporating the royal arms of England surmounted by a crowned helm and encircled by the Garter; a banner with the royal arms of England and a badge of the rose-en-soleil with the Yorkist motto 'Dieu et mon droit', from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 16r

Royal 15 E I, from which the preceding images are taken, contains over 50 miniatures, illustrating the Histoire d’Outremer. Outremer was the name given to the Holy Land and the Crusader states established there. It is a French version of the 12th-century Latin chronicle of William of Tyre (c. 1130–1186), who was born into a Crusader family in Jerusalem, educated in Europe and later became Archbishop of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon.

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A monk, perhaps Peter Bartholemew, handing over the spear used to pierce Christ's side, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 98v

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The Loss of the True Cross, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 433v

This manuscript is believed to have been made for King Edward IV of England in Bruges in 1479–80. It illustrates key events in the narrative. These include Pope Urban II preaching in 1095, which was credited with inspiring the First Crusade; the discovery of the relic of the Holy Lance; and even the fictional depiction of the loss of the True Cross in a battle against Saladin’s armies.

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Almanac page for the 2nd half of the 11th century, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 44v

While William of Tyre's text and its translations exist in various copies, Egerton MS 1500 is unique in the British Library collections. It contains the Abreviamen de las Estorias in old Occitan or Provençal (the medieval dialect of southern France), and was copied in Avignon between 1321 and 1324. Each page consists of synchronic tables with images of emperors, kings, dukes and popes. The page above, covering the period of the First Crusade, includes the Emperors Michael Bringas and Isaac Comnenos who ruled from 1056 to 1059, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1057–1084), King Philip I of France (r. 1052–1108) and Duke Vitale Faliero of Venice. The King of England is ‘Hernold Nepos’ (King Harold, killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066), followed by ‘Guillelmus I’ (William the Conqueror), and his sons William II and Henry I (r. 1100–1135). On the right under the rubric Pasazia et auxilia terre sancta is an image of Peter the Hermit, who was credited with leading thousands of mostly paupers on the ‘Peoples’ Crusade’ at the end of the 11th century.

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'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Folios 45v–53v contain an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted between the tables. Each paragraph of the text is accompanied by an image of Crusader knights on horseback, mostly led by churchmen. There is a plan of the walled city of Antioch, with the royal line of the Crusader King Baldwin beside it.

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Map of Antioch from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 47v

The account of the Crusades ends with a description of the reigns of Godfrey, who was styled protector of the Holy Sepulchre, and Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and a map of the Holy City. On the following page the almanac continues, including the rulers of the Crusader states, Roger and Tancred.

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‘Explicato[n]es de Regib[us] Jer[usa]l[e]m’  and a plan of Jerusalem, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, ff. 48v, 49r

Later depictions of the Crusades are already online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. These include a copy of Jean de Vignay's Merveilles de la terre d'outremer, made in Paris between 1333 and c. 1340 (Royal MS 19 D I), and a copy of Chroniques abrégées des Anciens Rois et Ducs de Bourgogne, made in Bruges around 1485–1490 (Yates Thompson MS 32).

Chantry Westwell

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26 March 2017

The medieval origins of Mothering Sunday

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Mothering Sunday falls every year on the 4th Sunday in Lent, also called Mid-Lent Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, referring to its sense of respite halfway through this season of fasting and penitence. The modern recognition of this day came about through the efforts of Constance Adelaide Smith (1878–1938), who worked as a dispenser of medicine in Nottingham, and drew directly on pre-modern traditions. She soon found that the medieval conception of motherhood and the celebration of it was both rugged and diverse.

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil (in the Taymouth Hours, c.1325–40)

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil, in the ‘Taymouth Hours’, c.1325–40: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 155v.

Smith had taken note of the Mother’s Day movement in the United States, promoted by Anna Jarvis and first proclaimed nationally in 1914, ‘as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country’, to be held on the 2nd Sunday in May. She was inspired by these efforts, but was not herself a mother, and argued for a deeper, more inclusive definition of mothers and mothering.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church (c.1075): Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church, c. 1075: Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

A short book appeared under the pseudonym ‘C. Penswick Smith’, The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1921 (revised 1932), as well as a sequel in 1928, with chapters exploring various facets of mothering: ‘The Church – Our Mother’; ‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’; ‘The Mother of Jesus’; and ‘Gifts of Mother Earth’. With these she collected a body of evidence for the traditions surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, which ranged from the practice of daughters visiting their mothers – especially important for those engaged as domestic servants away from home – to the gifts of simnel cakes or wafer cakes. Smith aimed to show that there was already an international tradition of honouring mothers of all types on the 4th Sunday in Lent, and this only needed to be strengthened through official recognition.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face (c.1240): Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face, c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

These various customs came from the medieval recognition of this day as ‘Laetare Sunday’. In the Middle Ages, many Sundays were referred to by their introit, or the first words of the Mass. On Mid-Lent Sunday, it also had a reference to mothering:

Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be satisfied from the breasts of your consolation.

Laetare Hierusalem et conuentum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis uestrae.

The readings for the day in the Sarum rite included Galatians 4.21–31, including the line ‘Jerusalem … is our mother’. The association of food with the day seems to be linked to John 6.1-14, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. On this Sunday, there was a relaxation of the rule against playing the organ. Simnel cake has been associated with the day for centuries, though its exact origins are foggy: ‘simnel’ is derived from Anglo-Norman simenel, ‘fine wheat flour’, itself apparently derived from the Classical Latin simila, a wheat flour. (The word was borrowed again from Anglo-Norman into medieval Latin as simenellus.)

Multitasking mum in the Cité des Dames of Christine de Pizan (1475): Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

Fredegund addressing her troops in a Dutch translation of Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

A custom developed during the Middle Ages of making a procession to one’s ‘mother church’ on this day, usually the local cathedral. This could sometimes get out of hand, as Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253), the bishop of Lincoln, warned against in his Letter 22.7: ‘In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death’ (Letters of Robert Grosseteste, trans. by Manello and Goering, p. 107).

Mothers were honoured in many other different ways. Abbots’ mothers are included in the list of queens and abbesses in the New Minster Liber uitae (Stowe MS 944, f. 26v). One Wulfwyn was the mother of the monk Ælfwine, who became abbot in 1031 or 1032; he also noted her death in his prayer book (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII). Margaret of Antioch was often considered the patron saint of pregnant women, escaping unscathed from no less than the bowels of a dragon, according to legend.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon, often considered the patron saint of pregnant women (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Mothering in the Middle Ages was multifaceted, complex and difficult — rather like today. Intellectuals compared it to the very work of God. Around 1395, Julian of Norwich famously compared God to a mother. Robert of Cricklade could uncontroversially write around 1238, ‘Do you seek the presence of a mother? Just as a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort you, says the Lord [Is. 66:13]’ (On the Marriage of the Prophet Jacob 1.20: Royal MS 8 E II, f. 22v). We can all agree: mothering is pretty awesome, and deserves to be celebrated.

Andrew Dunning

24 March 2017

Digitising our manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England

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Strong is he who tastes the power of books;
he who has possession of them is always the wiser.

Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.

— Solomon and Saturn II, lines 238–246 (translated in J. Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 198).

The British Library holds the world’s largest collections of books made or owned in England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books trace the development of writing, society, economy, government and religion from the 7th to the 11th centuries. We are delighted to announce that 175 of these manuscripts can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. We’ve produced a complete list of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available as of March 2017. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (although this format does work with all web browsers): Download Copy of All Anglo-Saxon Digitisations March 2017

Many of these manuscripts have been digitised in the last year in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders.

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Detail of canon tables, from the Royal Bible: England (Canterbury?), early 9th century, Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 4r

The manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts certainly corroborate the Old English poet’s claim that ‘books are glorious’. They range from mesmerising illuminated Insular Gospel-books to four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to fragments of scribbled farming memoranda. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in England before 1066. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa

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End of Gospel excerpts and beginning of a prayer of Gregory the Great, with an illuminated initial, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

Don’t panic if your favourite manuscript is not yet on the list. More are being digitised all the time, including under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

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Depiction of Mambres with a book: from a miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

You can stay in touch with our progress by reading this blog or by checking our regular Twitter updates.

Alison Hudson

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21 March 2017

Omne Bonum (All Good Things)

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‘Virtually all good things [are] contained herein.’ That's how the author of the text known as Omne Bonum described his work. Omne Bonum is a huge encyclopedia, whose compiler (and scribe), James le Palmer, sought to compile all the knowledge of his time, arranged alphabetically for the use of ‘simple individuals who wish to seek out the precious pearls of learning’. There are 1350 entries arranged under the 23 letters of the medieval Latin alphabet, with each letter comprising a book. Over 750 of these entries are accompanied by historiated initials. The 1094 pages are divided into two volumes, held at the British Library and each surviving in two parts: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, Royal 6 E VI/2, Royal 6 E VII/1, Royal 6 E VII/2, all now fully digitised.  The illustrations, a gold mine of visual information about the medieval world, were already highlighted on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The whole manuscript can also be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts, not just the illustrations but the entire text, with all its complex components.

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Page with entries from Domesticus (servant) to Dominus bonus (good master), from James le Palmer's Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 546r

Contents of the Omne Bonum

At the beginning of the first volume is a cycle of 109 tinted drawings, 4 to a page, illustrating all the important Bible stories from Creation to the Ascension of Christ, followed by a short series of visions, including the Vision of Saints Benedict and Paul (see below). The text includes excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues and Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram.

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Christ’s miracles: the loaves and fishes, the widow’s son, healing the blind, and walking on water, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 10r

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Vision of St Benedict and St Paul: f. 15v: Saint Benedict pointing to the soul of Bishop Germanus being carried up to Heaven (above), the conversion of Saint Paul (below); f. 16r: the face of God in radiance (above), St Benedict and St Paul kneeling (centre), a man and a woman kneeling before a circular diagram of the universe with the Garden of Eden at the centre, from Omne Bonum, England (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, ff. 15v-16r

This biblical section is followed by the alphabetical entries, which cover a wide range of subjects:

Theology

The first entry, ‘Absolucio’ is typical of many in that the subject is theological and a creative solution has been found to illustrate an abstract concept. The Church hierarchy is portrayed in that the Pope is shown absolving bishops and a priest absolving a layman. In the accompanying text, priests are warned against demanding excessive penance when absolving members of their flock.

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Absolucio (Absolution), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f.19r

Though there is a focus on theology, church history and hagiography, reflecting the main concerns of the 14th-century author, a wide range of subjects is covered, including:

Law

This example of a legal argument taken from Hostiensis or Henry of Segusio’s Summa is of ‘accidental mishap’, whereby a monk who carries a sword to defend himself against pagans cannot help it if he happens to kill a pagan who he encounters when going about his daily business. The image shows a monk looking extremely pleased with himself, having plunged what appears to be a gargantuan metal object right through the body of an innocent-looking and rather well-dressed young man.  Could this really be termed ‘accidental’ or is ‘fortuitous’ a better description?


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Casus fortuitus (Accidental mishap), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 228v

Morality and the human condition

Some images bring a wry smile to the modern reader, though the intention of the medieval illuminator was almost certainly not to amuse. Below, a prospective bride who is being given a ring looks extremely dissatisfied with her gift, while the young man seems very pleased with himself.

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Donacio propter nupcias (Bridal Gift), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 553r

Science and natural history

Science and natural history were also discussed. Some of these entries also had moral purposes, as the devil in the image below stands for the use of astrology for magical or superstitious practices which are condemned, whereas study of the stars is recommended for physicians and farmers, who will put it to good use. The accompanying text is based on the writings of Gratian, one of the many sources included in this compendium of knowledge.

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Constellacio (Constellation), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 396v

The author also described different animals. In the image below, the puppies are rather cute, with Dalmatian-like spots, but the beaver is a weird hybrid creature with the head and paws of a dog and tail of a fish, reflecting the description in the text of ‘fins and tail like a fish’.

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Catuli (puppies) and castor (beaver), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 244r

Volume 2 of the set begins inauspiciously, the first entry being Ebrietas (Drunkenness). The image shows six drunken louts misbehaving, one of them being sick on the ground.

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Ebrietas (Drunkenness), from Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

The remarkable compiler and scribe of the Omne Bonum was James le Palmer (b. 1327). He was king’s clerk in the Exchequer from 1359 and was granted a pension by Edward III in 1375.  He did not have time to finish his ambitious work, perhaps as he was trying to compile it in his spare time, and although some illustrations were added by a later owner, the text was never completed. The second volume begins at ‘E’ and there are relatively few entries for letters after ‘M’.

The final entry is Zacharias, with three entries representing three individuals, Pope Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophet, each with a historiated initial. Instructions to the illuminator can be seen in a faint cursive in the margins, but they are not in the hand of le Palmer, and the artist, who was a later contributor, does not follow them closely; for example, in the upper left margin the note reads ‘Sit h[ic] papa & p[ro]ph[et]a’ (Here to be a pope and prophet) but the artist has drawn a pope and a king, illustrating the adjoining text, which tells of Pope Zacharias deposing a French king who was ‘inutilis’.

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Page with entries for Zacharias, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/2, f. 532r

We would like to thank Lucy Freeman Sandler, whose remarkable study and scholarly edition of these unique manuscripts has provided the major source of information for our catalogue entry and this blogpost. For any further information on the author, illuminators, contents and context of this work, we refer our readers to:

Lucy Freeman Sandler, Omne Bonum: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller, 1996).

Chantry Westwell

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