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26 April 2015

The Paston Letters Go Live

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The collection known as the Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years -- the family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich. The Pastons rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just a few generations: the first member of the family about whom anything is known was Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, who gave an excellent education to his son William (d. 1444), enabling him to study law. William’s sons and grandsons, two of whom were knighted, continued his relentless quest for wealth, status and land, and their story was acted out against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses. 

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 A 19th-century view of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk. This 15th-century 'castle' was built for a prominent aristocratic family, the Fastolfs. It passed to the Paston family who occupied it for the next century (British Library KTop XXXI.47)

For the first time, part of the British Library’s large collection of Paston family correspondence and documents has been digitised and is available to view in full. Five volumes containing some of the most studied items have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts website: four volumes from 1440-1489 (Add MS 43488, Add MS 43489Add MS 43490Add MS 43491) and a volume that contains further material from the second half of the 15th century, together with later correspondence from of the later 16th century (Add MS 33597). One of the most famous items in the Paston collection is the oldest Valentine letter (London, British Library, Additional MS 43490, f. 24), featured on this blog in 2011 when it was displayed in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition.

One of the earliest of the surviving letters, dated 20 April, ?1440, is from Agnes Paston to her husband, William, the patriarch of the family, in which she tells him that their son, John, seems to like the ‘gentilwomman’ that his father has chosen to be his bride, and asks him to buy her a wedding gown in ‘a godely blew or ellys a bryghte sanggueyn [red]’. Her mother has promised to supply the fur to go with it. She ends the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast … for defaute of a good secretarye’, so it would appear that this letter was written by Agnes herself. Unfortunately we do not know if the bride, Margaret Mautby, liked her gown, but she did marry John later in 1440!

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Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)

The titles in modern handwriting show that this is the first letter in volume I of five volumes of Original letters, written during the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III…, edited and bound by their owner, John Fenn, the Norfolk antiquary in 1787-89 . The first two volumes were presented by him to King George III (1760-1820) at St James’s Palace in 1787, but then disappeared from view until they were found  in the library of Colonel George Tomline at Orwell Park, Suffolk, around 1890. Tomline was a descendant of the private secretary to William Pitt the Younger, so they may have been in Pitt’s library in the late 18th century, but there is no record of how he obtained them from the Royal library. They were bought by the British Museum in 1933 after the Pretyman-Tomline family put them up for sale at Sotheby’s.

Each letter has the address and remains of a wax seal on the rear.

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Verso of the above letter: ‘To my worshepefulle housbond W. Paston be this letter takyn’, Norfolk,  20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4v)

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442.  The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.

Among the letters and documents is an inventory of ‘Englysshe bokis’ owned by John Paston II (b. 1442, d.1479); unfortunately, the paper has decayed on the right-hand side so the titles are incomplete. Paston’s library included copies of romances that were popular at the time, for example ‘a boke of Troylus’, ‘þe Dethe off Arthur’ and a printed book listed as ‘a boke in preente off þe Pleye of þe… ‘, which has been identified as a copy of Caxton’s printed edition of ‘The Game and Playe of the Chess’, published in 1475. Unsurprisingly there are several books of heraldry, religious and classical texts.

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Inventory of books belonging to John Paston II, Norfolk, between 1475 and 1479 (BL Additional MS 43491, f. 26r)

Sometimes the events described in the letters are remarkably familiar. While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, probably in his late teens, John Paston I loses his wallet somewhere between Cambridge and Newmarket! Here is an edition of the letter written by a certain John Gyne, known to the family, who found it on the ‘high weye’. The letter is from a collection that is soon to be digitised, and is transcribed in James Gairdner’s 1904 edition of the letters.

 

JOHN GYNE TO JOHN PASTON

To the worthy and worshipful sir and my good maister, John Paston of Trynyte hall in Cambrigge

1435–6

Right worthy and worshipfull sir, and my good maister, I comaund me to yow. Like it yow to witte that on the Soneday next after the Ascencion of oure Lord, in the high weye betwex Cambrigge and the Bekyntre toward Newmarket, I fonde a purs with money ther inne. Th’entent of this my symple lettre is this, that it please to your good Maistership by weye of charite, and of your gentilnesse, to witte if ony of youre knowleche or ony other, swich as yow semeth best in your discrecion, have lost swich a purs, and, the toknes ther of told, he shal have it ageyn, what that ever he be, by the grace of oure Lord, Who ever have yow in his blissed kepyng. Wretyn at Sneylewell the Moneday next after the seid Soneday. By youre pover servaunt, John Gyn.

As most of the letters are dated or datable, they are invaluable primary sources for historians and are, in addition, of outstanding interest to linguists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development.  There are 2185 entries from the Paston letters in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Visser’s monumental work,  An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Leiden: Brill, 1972), they are a major source of examples of Middle English usage. One example is found in a letter from John Paston III (John Paston I has two sons called John Paston, just to confuse historians!) to his mother, Margaret Paston, where he informs her that my lord of Oxynforth … sent to my lady of Norffolk by John Bernard only for my mater and for non othyr cawse, myn onwetyng … (‘Lord Oxford sent a message to Lady Norfolk just to raise my business with her and for no other reason, without me knowing’). This construction, myn onweting (literally ‘mine unknowing’), is unfamiliar to us now. In modern English we would use the preposition ‘without’ to introduce an adverbial phrase with a present participle but we would be more likely to replace it with a noun, e.g., ‘without my knowledge’. The vocabulary, too, is interesting. ‘Onweting’ is a form of the Old English verb, ‘witen’, an alternative to ‘cnawan’ (to know), which survives in noun form in Modern English, in the word, ‘wit’ or ‘witless’ but is no longer used as a verb.     

This letter was written in the midst of the confusion surrounding the restoration of Henry VI, who was recrowned the day after it was written, on 13 October 1470. John Paston tells his mother ‘tydyngys’ of the imminent death of the Earl of Worcester, who was to be executed a week later.

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Letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston, London, 12 October 1470 (BL Additional MS 43489, f. 40r)

These 5 volumes are just a part of the large collection of Paston letters in the British Library. Further volumes of the family’s letters and documents are scheduled for digitisation in the future, so watch this space!

Chantry Westwell

25 April 2015

King John's Last Will and Testament

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Did you know that the oldest surviving original English royal will is on display in our Magna Carta exhibition? And that it was written on behalf of King John in October 1216? Here, Katie Har -- who was part of the team which worked on the exhibition -- examines its context.

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The will of King John (Worcester Cathedral Muniments B1693), on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

In the autumn of 1216, with the kingdom still embroiled in civil war, King John fell ill, probably of dysentery, while in the prosperous -- and, more importantly, friendly to the Crown -- port and town of Lynn. His illness steadily worsened as he made his way back through Lincolnshire, making it as far as the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Then, on the 18th or 19th of October (depending on which sources are to be believed) John eventually succumbed to his illness.

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Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire by the River Trent

In the last days before his death John had his will drawn up. In it he specifically stated that the gravity of his illness prevented him from drawing up an itemized will, so instead he named 13 men to oversee the fulfilment of his wishes. Here is the text of his will, in English translation (taken from S. Church, English Historical Review, 125 (2010)):

I, John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, hindered by grave infirmity and not being able at this time of my infirmity to itemize all my things so that I may make a testament, commit the arbitration and administration of my testament to the trust and to the legitimate administration of my faithful men whose names are written below, without whose counsel, even in good health, I would have by no means arranged my testament in their presence, so that what they will faithfully arrange and determine concerning my things as much as in making satisfaction to God and to holy Church for damages and injuries done to them as in sending succour to the land of Jerusalem and in providing support to my sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance and in making reward to those who have served us faithfully and in making distribution to the poor and to religious houses for the salvation of my soul, be right and sure. I ask, furthermore, that whoever shall give them counsel and assistance in the arranging of my testament shall receive the grace and favour of God. Whoever shall infringe their arrangement and disposition, may he incur the curse and indignation of almighty God and the blessed Mary and all the saints.

In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester. I appoint, moreover, the following arbiters and administrators: the lord Guala, by the grace of God, cardinal-priest of the title of St Martin and legate of the apostolic see; the lord Peter bishop of Winchester; the lord Richard bishop of Chichester; the lord Silvester bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St-Maur; William Marshal earl of Pembroke; Ranulf earl of Chester; William earl Ferrers; William Brewer; Walter de Lacy and John of Monmouth; Savaric de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté.

If concessions are made for the practice of sealing rather than signing documents, this is a valid will as we would know it today. It fulfils all the criteria: that the person writing the will must be 18 or over; that they make it voluntarily; be of sound mind; make it in writing; sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18; and have it signed by their two witnesses, in their presence. Perhaps, following the use of the Latin word ‘testamentum’ in this document, we should refer to it as a ‘testament’ rather than a ‘will’. Our modern use of the word ‘will’ links back to the Old English phrase ‘ic wille’ (I desire), used in the Anglo-Saxon period in documents directing the disposal of one’s property after one’s death.

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The alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

While there is an entire corpus of these sorts of documents going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, King John’s will is the earliest English royal will to survive in its original form. We have later copies of wills of two Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred (d. 899) and Eadred (d. 955), as well as multiple copies of the will of John’s father, Henry II (d. 1189). There are references to, but no texts for, those of his brother Richard (d. 1199) or his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). There was no regular practice of enrolling or necessarily carefully preserving royal wills in the governmental records, either before John's reign or subsequently under his son Henry III, so it’s perhaps a fluke that this document has managed to survive to this day.  

The document itself is small, around the size of a postcard. From the fold at the bottom and the slits found there, the royal seal clearly once hung from the bottom of the will, likely accompanied by the seals of the 8 appointed executors present at the drawing up of the will. With only half of the kingdom under royal control at his death, one of the responsibilities of the men chosen to execute John’s last will lay ‘in providing support to [his] sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance’. Among the 13 overseers we find named Guala (d. 1227), the papal legate, and the future regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Both men played a major part in securing the throne for Henry III, including being instrumental in the 1216 reissue of Magna Carta.

King John's will has been very generously loaned by Worcester Cathedral to the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. John was buried at Worcester in accordance with the terms of his will. Next year Worcester Cathedral will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of King John's death, and in 2015-16 they are also hosting a series of special events relating to King John and Magna Carta.

 

Katherine Har

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. There is also a comprehensive events programme and a website dedicated to Magna Carta.

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

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We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts Sloane MS 345, a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts, from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

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Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

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Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

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Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

C5473-06
Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

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St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane 1977, f. 2r



-          Chantry Westwell

16 April 2015

Murder in the Cathedral

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One of the most notorious episodes in medieval English history took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. During evening vespers, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and erstwhile friend of King Henry II, was murdered by four of the king’s knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito. They are said to have been incited to action by Henry’s exasperated words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

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The earliest known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B II, f. 341r)

Becket's martyrdom was the subject of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, first performed on 15 June 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral before it moved to a run at the Mercury Theatre in London. Eliot’s play drew on the work of an eyewitness to the event, a clerk named Edward Grim who had attempted to defend Becket from William de Tracy’s blow. Henry had actually hoped that the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, would help him to reassert royal authority over the Church. But the king had not anticipated that Becket would resign as chancellor shortly after he was elevated to the see of Canterbury. The conflict between Henry II and Becket centred on the perennial issue of the balance between royal and papal authority and the rights of the church in England.

Becket’s murder sent shockwaves across Western Christendom. The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, who ordered them to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years while they sought his forgiveness. Becket himself was canonised in February 1173, less than 3 years after his death, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major site of pilgrimage – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, are testament to the continued popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas. Henry II, meanwhile, undertook a public act of penance on 12 July 1174. Confessing to indirect responsibility for the murder, he entered Canterbury in sackcloth, both barefoot and mute, and made a pilgrimage to the crypt of St Thomas where he was whipped by the monks while he lay prostrate and naked by the tomb.

Our new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy, includes three items that relate to the legacy of Becket’s martyrdom. One is a 12th-century English manuscript of the Letters of Thomas Becket, collected by Alan of Tewkesbury, which contains the earliest known manuscript miniature of Becket’s martyrdom, shown above. The second is a beautiful enamelled Champlevé reliquary from Limoges, on loan from the British Museum. On one compartment is an image of Becket being struck with a sword; above, he rises from his tomb to ascend to heaven. Reliquaries such as this would have been used to store relics of the saint.

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A reliquary depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (British Museum 1854,0411.2) 

The third item relating to Becket's martyrdom is the seal of his successor, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-28). Langton's seal shows the murder of Thomas Becket on its reverse, as a permanent reminder of the suffering endured by the Church. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the first clause of Magna Carta, perhaps inserted at Langton's insistence (and still valid in English law today), confirms the liberties of the church in England.

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The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (London, British Library, Harley Charter 75 A 14)

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (#MagnaCarta)

Katherine Har

14 April 2015

Ten Things To Know About Medieval Monsters

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In their new picture book published by the British Library, Medieval Monsters, medieval historian Damien Kempf and art historian Maria L. Gilbert explore the fantastic, grotesque and exuberant world of monsters in the Middle Ages through the images found in illuminated manuscripts, from dragons and demons to Yoda and hybrid creatures. The book has already attracted rave reviews: don't forget that you can buy it from the British Library online shop (£10, ISBN 9780712357906).

In this guest post, Damien and Maria describe ten things you should know about medieval monsters in a whimsical poem à la Edward Lear and Dr. Seuss.

With medieval manuscripts one does find

there lurks a particularly special kind

of creature, lurking in the margin,

religious instruction or pure diversion?

Frightening, charming, sometimes alarming;

monsters are Sin and Damnation,

Seduction, Temptation, Allure, Delectation.

We enter their world, they hold us in thrall

let’s take a look, the Middle Ages call.

***

1. They may be shy

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The big-eared Panotii were a monstrous race;

located on the peripheries—an imaginary place.

Their ears were so large they could serve as blankets

or wings to fly away when overcome with shyness.

* * *

2. They may create a wonderful first impression but beware!

MS. LUDWIG XV 3, FOL. 78_mask.png

Bird-woman mermaid, alluring siren at sea,

sings so enchantingly there’s no time to plea.

You’re entranced, you’re drawn in. That voice! Those tail swishes!

Next you’re asleep and then: food for the fishes.

* * *

3. They may crave love and tenderness

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A horse with a long horn, most fierce and shrewd,

the all powerful unicorn easily eludes

an experienced hunter, but tame it becomes

at the touch of a virgin and completely succumbs.

* * *

4. They may be multi-headed

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An end days vision: six heads and ten horns

with multiple crowns, his head is adorned.

Mouth like a lion and feet like a bear

the Beast of the Apocalypse gives quite a scare.

* * *

5. They may be very tempting

Getty Ms. Ludwig XI 8, fol. 6v_demon adjusted.png

Living in the desert, the hermit saint Anthony

besieged by hallucinations seemingly continually.

Facing trial after trial of temptation,

this Christian ascetic retained his concentration.

* * *

6. They may bite off more than they can chew

MS. 37, FOL. 49V_mask.png

Margaret of Antioch, thrown into prison

by the prefect Olibrius for being a Christian.

The devil as a dragon visited her there,

swallowed her whole but having said a prayer

she burst out unharmed, a dragon slayer.

* * *

7. They may take your soul on your deathbed if you behave badly

Ms. 57, fol. 194_mask.png

At death, both an angel and devil are waiting.

Will your soul go to hell or is it worth saving?

It depends on the deeds you performed in life.

whether you repented or caused bitter strife.

* * *

8. They may be quite irksome

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On Patmos, John (the Evangelist probably)

wrote revelations, an apocalyptic prophecy.

A mischievous demon tried to spoil the plot

by sneakily stealing John’s ink pot.

* * *

9. They may be flashy

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Warrior angel Michael, celestial army head

smote the devil down but didn’t strike him dead.

A spectacular battle, some would say,

as theatrical & vibrant as lucha libre.

* * *

10. They may look like Hollywood movie stars

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Sendak, Burton, Lucas, and Seuss

Their films: medieval monster reuse!

Handsome, playful, quirky, and whimsical

Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.

 

Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

FEATURED: Panotti (British Library Add MS 62925, f. 88v, detail); Siren (Ms. Ludwig XV 3, f. 78, detail, J. Paul Getty Museum); Unicorn (BL Stowe 17, f. 90v, detail); Beast of the Apocalypse (BL Add. 54180, f. 14v, detail); Anthony's demon (Ms. Ludwig XI 8, f. 6v, detail, Getty Museum); Margaret's dragon (Ms. 37, f. 49v, detail, Getty Museum); Soul takers (Ms. 57, f. 194, detail, Getty Museum); John's demon (Ms. Ludwig IX 6, f.13, detail, Getty Museum); Michael and the Devil (BL Add 18851, f. 464, detail); Figure in monk's robes ('Yoda') (Royal 10 E IV, f. 30, detail).

07 April 2015

A Giant from Our Collections: The Stavelot Bible

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Historiated initial 'I' ('In principio'), at the beginning of Genesis, fully painted and gilded, with roundels containing scenes relating to Genesis and Christ, from the Stavelot Bible, Netherlands, S. (Stavelot), 1094-1097, Add MS 28106, f 6r.

Readers of our blog will know that our manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary from Books of Hours so tiny that they can fit in the palm of one’s hand, to enormous tomes that are almost impossible for one person to lift. Each of the two volumes of the Stavelot Bible exceeds the aircraft carry-on limit, with dimensions of 58 x 39cm, and weighing 40 lb, and the whole work takes four people to carry, two for each volume. Fortunately for scholars, bodybuilding is no longer a requirement to look at this manuscript as it has now been fully digitised and is available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.

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Canon tables, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 139v

The writing, decoration and binding of this monumental Bible, made for the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, near Liège, southern Netherlands, took four years to complete, and was finished in 1097.

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Illuminated initial at the beginning of the Book of Samuel, showing the Amakelite bearing the crown of the dead Saul into David’s camp (below), then presenting Saul’s insignia to David (middle) and the executioner holding up the severed head of the Amakelite over his twisted body (above), from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 109r

Two monks involved in its production, Godderan and Ernesto, are identified in an inscription, although their roles are not specified: Godderan may have been the sole scribe, and Ernesto one of the artists. Its great size and legibility of script indicates that it would have been the principal Bible of the abbey, possibly used for daily services or for display on the high altar.

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‘ET’ at the beginning of the Book of Joshua, with (above) the hand of God coming down to Joshua, shown from the back, in a pose characteristic of the Stavelot artist, and (below) Joshua addressing three followers, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 75v

This image, which appears before the beginning of the New Testament, is one of the great monuments of early Romanesque art. It shows Christ in Majesty, holding a book and a Greek cross, with the globe of the earth under his feet, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

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Christ in Majesty, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 136r

The two volumes of the Stavelot Bible contain 45 historiated initials in all.  Unfortunately in some places initials have been cut out and blank spaces remain.

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Text page with missing image from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 144v

Not all initials are historiated. In this masterful composition from the beginning of the Liber Generationis in Matthew’s Gospel, the shape follows the outlines of the letter ‘L’ and animal and human forms struggle to escape from the swirling vines. 

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Decorated initial ‘L’(iber) at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 142v

 - Chantry Westwell

02 April 2015

A Calendar Page for April 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

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Calendar page for April, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

A pastoral scene greets us on the calendar page for April, with budding leaves on the trees heralding the onset of spring. Sheep and their lambs, a goat and two oxen are being shepherded out from half-timbered barns, to graze in the fields beyond. A cockerel, hens and their hatchlings scrabble about in farmyard, while in the background a woman stands churning milk for butter. The roundels depict the two main feast days for the month – for St George (on horseback, vanquishing a dragon with his lance) and for St Mark (seated at his desk and accompanied by his emblem, a winged lion). Taurus the Bull – the Zodiac sign for April – is standing at the head of page. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of animals being let out to graze,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

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Detail of a roundel depicting St George and the dragon,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r

- James Freeman

29 March 2015

The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Medieval Justice

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition is now open in London, but for those of you who can't come to the British Library in person, over the coming months we're going to showcase some of the exhibits on this blog. You may imagine that our story starts in the years immediately before the Great Charter was granted in 1215; but in fact the earliest items in our exhibition pre-date the Norman Conquest of England ...

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Miniature of a king dictating the law (London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r)

‘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 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.’

So reads the most famous clause of Magna Carta, still valid in English law. But what do we know about the concept of justice before the 13th century?

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon law code was actually issued around the year 600 by King Æthelberht of Kent (r. 560–616), and was written in Old English. Meanwhile, the Bible provided models for good Christian kingship, as demonstrated in this 11th-century manuscript of the Hexateuch (the first 6 books of the Bible), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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The Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r)

Here is the biblical story of Pharaoh sentencing his chief baker to be hanged (Genesis 40:21-22). However, the 11th-century artist has dressed the figures in costumes of his own day: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. According to a 14th-century catalogue, this beautifully illustrated manuscript was kept in the monastery library at St Augustine’s Canterbury on the first shelf of its first bookcase. You can see this page in our Magna Carta exhibition, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website.

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents. God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.

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The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

This item is also on display in our Magna Carta exhibition. When you see it in person, you realise that this pocket-sized book was deliberately made to be easily portable, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfstan himself.

It's quickly apparent that the concept of justice in medieval England was firmly established before King John came to the throne. We'll review why Magna Carta came to be granted in some of our later blogposts (look out for them on Twitter, @BLMedieval with the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

You can view the Old English Hexateuch and King Cnut's lawcode alongside other items relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. They are also featured on our new Magna Carta website (Old English Hexateuch and lawcode of King Cnut).