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406 posts categorized "Medieval"

14 June 2014

Tales of Brave Ulysses

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Every June 16, devotees of James Joyce in Dublin and around the world celebrate the anniversary of the events described in the novel Ulysses. While a book set in 1904 and first published in 1922 is a little bit beyond the scope of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, it marks the culmination of the long journey of the Homeric character Odysseus (Ulixes in Latin, hence Ulysses) through many different roles in art and literature. Most medieval depictions of Ulysses do not come in manuscripts of Homer, however, but in accounts of the Trojan war and its aftermath.

In the Iliad, Odysseus is given a prominent supporting role: he is a brave and fearsome warrior, as well as a clever strategist. Here he is with Nestor and Diomedes attempting to persuade Achilles to return to the fray: the Embassy scene told first in Iliad 9, but here accompanying the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César in the mid-14th-century Royal MS 20 D I:

Royal_ms_20_d_i_f131v detail
Detail of a miniature of Odysseus, Nestor, Diomedes, and Achilles, from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, Italy (Naples), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 131v

In the Odyssey, he gets top billing, and as the hero, is depicted in a largely positive light. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he blinds the Cyclops: here the illumination is found in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa, in a French manuscript of the 1410s:

Harley_ms_4431_f105r detail
Detail of a miniature of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 105r

Shortly after the Homeric era, however, the Odyssean backlash begins, and he becomes something of a stage villain, before being described in Book Two of Virgil’s Aeneid as scelerumque inuentor (the inventor of wicked deeds) and dirus Ulixes (terrifying Ulysses), who played a key role in the tragic fall of Troy. Here is a picture of the Trojan Horse from a late 15th-century manuscript of Virgil:

Detail of a miniature of the Trojan Horse, from a manuscript of Virgil & Pseudo-Ovid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 73v

In the medieval era, the figure of Ulysses is largely based on that portrayed in the late antique epitomes of the Trojan saga – the De Excidio Troiae attributed to Dares Phrygius, and the Ephemeris Belli Troiani attributed to Dictys of Crete. In the latter work, in particular, Ulysses is not depicted in a favourable light. Given the fact that these two works were key sources for the medieval tales of Troy, this had an impact on how Ulysses was portrayed.

One addition made by Dictys was the account of a recurring dream had by Ulysses, in which a figure of great beauty keeps appearing to him, before a signum is thrown at him. Here is a depiction of that dream, from a late 15th-century manuscript containing a French version of the Trojan matter (Le recoeil des histoires de Troyes):

Detail of a miniature of Ulysses’ dream, from Raoul Lefèvre’s Le recoeil des histoires de Troyes, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1475 – c. 1483, Royal MS 17 E II, f. 372v

There are of course many other accounts of Ulysses and his adventures to be found in British Library collections. But since we began with Joyce, it is fitting to end with another Irish account of Ulysses (though it is not, sadly, to be found amongst our holdings). The Early Irish tale Merugud Uilix Maicc Leirtis (“The Wanderings of Ulysses son of Laertes”) was found in a Stowe manuscript now in the Royal Irish Academy Library in Dublin. You can read the Irish original on the excellent CELT website. Unlike in many other medieval traditions, here Ulysses is depicted in a positive light, and special prominence is given to his faithful dog Argos (who in the Irish account is female), who joyfully recognises Ulysses and confirms who he is (a scene very different from the Homeric original!) Unfortunately we could not find any pictures of Ulysses and his dog. There is, however, a friendly and rather shaggy-looking dog in this picture, who almost appears to be greeting the Greek soldier climbing out of the Trojan Horse. Perhaps this is a nod to the story of Ulysses and Argos?

Royal_ms_18_d_ii_f075r detail
Detail of the Trojan Horse at the gates of Troy, from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, England (probably London), 1457 – c. 1530, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

- Cillian O'Hogan

10 June 2014

Beyond the Bling

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It’s like putting a face to a well-known name for the first time.  Often mentioned in scholarship on late medieval English books, but rarely reproduced, the Simeon manuscript is online at last on Digitised Manuscripts.  So what are the first impressions now that Add MS 22283 is available for close-up digital scrutiny?  Bling.  Conspicuous, ostentatious display of gold-leaf on virtually all of its massive pages.  Think of exquisite books of hours such as British Library, Egerton MS 1151, and then imagine the complete opposite.  Although it too is comprised of texts for pious readers, Simeon is no personal devotional pocket book, intricately decorated to draw in the eye of the reader, but a huge tome measuring some 590 x 390 mm whose open pages would have glittered from afar across the medieval hall, chapel, or library.  Folio 90r is typical: illuminated initials mark the start of each verse stanza, and even paragraph marks are decorated with gold:

The beginning of ‘Of a true love clean and derne’, the Love Rune by Thomas of Hales, Add MS 22283, f. 90r

At the bottom of this page two full-length bar borders terminate in elaborate gold-leaf extensions that form the ground for huge, freeform sprays in the generous lower margin:

Sprays on gold-leaf grounds, Add MS 22283
, f. 90r

When one has ceased to be dazzled, however, closer inspection – so much more convenient with the digital format than when consulting the massive volume itself -- reveals many interesting and curious details.  At least one of the artists indulged in expressive exuberance in the interiors and extensions of initials.  A fine example occurs on folio 4v, where a naturalistic – though blue -- dog curls inside a T, the descending stroke of the letter curving up and round like a leash attached to the dog’s collar.  If one imagines the image turned through 90 degrees, the dog sniffs the letter like a hound following a scent:

I Add_ms_22283_f004v_detail
nitial T marking the beginning of the homily of the gospel for the second Sunday after Trinity in the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, f. 4v

Possibly there were originally more zoomorphic initials by this witty and observant artist in the 176 or so folios that have been lost at the beginning of the manuscript.  Initials later in the volume display animal forms of rather more whimsical, less fully-realised character, for example the reptilian creature that materialises from the foliage in the initial A on folio 149r:

Initial A marking the second part of The Form of Living by Richard Rolle, Add MS 22283
, f. 149r

On fol. 21r the serif of a T extends to suggest an elongated creature with an protruding snout:

Initial T marking the beginning of the homily on the gospel for the feast of St Thomas in the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, fol.  21r

On folio 33v two animal heads (dogs again?) spew out sprays at the base of a letter thorn (th): 

Initial thorn marking a new section in the Speculum Vitae, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

But the extension at the top of this letter is even more interesting,  for here a human face looks pensively at the text:

Add_ms_22283_f033v_detail_2 copy
Human face protruding from an initial, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

The face serves as a particularly effective nota bene, its expression of concern suggesting the appropriate response from the reader, or from even the artist himself, to the dreadful warning in the text it contemplates:

Passage from the Speculum Vitae, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

The passage is from the Speculum Vitae, a Middle English commentary on the Pater Noster prayer; here the author comments on the phrase qui es (who art [in heaven]), stating that it should stir dread of punishment at the Last Judgement.  In the original Middle English the passage reads:

Ȝit þis word whon we hit rede

Qui es stureþ vs to haue drede.

For al þauh we god vr fader halde

And we ben here his children calde

He is rihtwis and soþfast

And wol ȝelde vs atte last

Aftur vre dedes and þat is skil

Be þei goode or be þei il.

And þat schal be at þe dom seene

Wel is hym þat þenne is clene

For þenne wol god rewarde sone

To vche mon as he haþ done.

Þerfore we schulde euer ha drede

To don vuel þorwh word or dede.

For we schul ȝelde acountes þat day

Of vche idel word þat we say.

(‘Yet when we read this phrase qui es, it stirs dread in us.  For although we consider God our father and are called his children, he is righteous and truthful and will pay us back for our deeds at the end, according to whether they are good or bad, as makes sense.  And that shall be seen at the Last Judgement; it will be well for anyone then who is clean of sin.  For then God will reward each person according to his deeds.  Therefore we should always dread doing evil by word or deed. For we shall be called to account that day for each idle word that we have said.’)

Other details discovered by close examination are the traces left by early readers of Simeon, readers that pre-date by a long way the only known owner, John Simeon, who sold the manuscript to the British Library in 1858.  One early reader updates the original Middle English  ‘ȝe [ye] may habbe /To ȝoure mest neode [to your most need]’, writing ‘haue yf [if] ye crave’ in a coarse hand.  A later reader remarks sardonically, ‘this read bettre before’ (folio 2v):

Add_ms_22283_f002v_detail copy
Early readers’ responses to the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, f. 2v

One gets a sense of a community of readers through the ages, engaging in different ways with the challenges of the Middle English and with each other.

Annotations in Latin suggest that some early readers of Simeon had received at least a grammar-school education (and were therefore probably male).  One Latin-writing annotator identifies the author of a text as the famous fourteenth-century mystic Walter Hilton in a side-note, ‘tractatus Magistri Walteri de Hilton’ (folio 151v).  This one-off identification suggests that Hilton was of particular interest to this reader.  Another annotator notes the subject of an exemplum, writing ‘of a kene swerd’ (of a keen sword) in a one-off rubric (folio 86v).   Another picks out the names and attributes of certain characters in the Prick of Conscience (folio 77r), for example ‘Absolon the fairest’ and ‘Sampson the strongest’:

A reader’s response to the Prick of Conscience, Add MS 22283
, f. 77r

A  note in the lower margin of folio 38r takes us from the world of readers of the manuscript to that of the scribes who produced books such as these, or used them as exemplars.  This note refers to a certain John Scryveyn and Thomas Heneley and their involvement in book copying:

Note concerning a copying commission by Thomas Heneley for John Scryveyn, Add MS 22283
, f. 38r

H. E. Allen noted long ago (Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 1936, p. 116) that this note relates to another note of similar wording in the famous Vernon manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a. 1).  The link between the two notes is one of several pieces of evidence that Simeon was made in association with Vernon.  Another link between Simeon and Vernon is the fact that the main scribe of both books is the same.  The Vernon-Simeon scribe, as we might call him, uses spellings and forms associated with the dialects of the West Midlands and has a careful, unshowy round hand typified by the backwards curl at the bottom of the letter thorn and the relative heights of the ascenders in w (see þat and was in the second line of the image from folio 77r, above).  Evidence like this points intriguingly to the little-understood world of scribal activity and the making and decoration of books in England around 1400 of which the Simeon manuscript is a product.  It is to be hoped that the digitisation of Simeon will help to uncover more of this lost world and shed light on its mysteries.

The Simeon Manuscript Project team at the University of Birmingham, who have collaborated with the British Library  in the digitisation of the Simeon manuscript, is studying some of these problems.   We would be delighted to hear from anyone who thinks they have identified any of the Simeon scribal hands in another manuscript or document or has found comparable decoration.  For information about the research and related projects and to contact the team please visit the project website and of course please upload your comments to this blog.  We will be posting further guest entries about our work on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog as the project develops.

 -  Wendy Scase, University of Birmingham

07 June 2014

Guess the Manuscript XIII

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Many thanks to all of you who have been playing along with our award-winning game Guess the Manuscript.  Our last installment was handily won by Hal Anderson, ARLIMA, Joyce Coleman, and quite a few of you on Twitter - congratulations to you all!

We've decided to take a turn from the textual to the graphic today (not that kind of graphic), and to issue a further challenge to you - we want to know if you can identify the image below, but also tell us a bit about its history.  By now you know the rules; this image can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is a part of our medieval collections.  Please leave your guesses in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Good luck!



Update:  only one of you managed to crack this one - congratulations to Richard Wragg (@richdwragg) who guessed correctly (well, nearly, as you'll see)!  The answer is a carpet page from an 11th century Gospels from Germany, Harley MS 2821, and is very similar to folio 99v, which was Richard's guess, but this one has a bit of a twist.  It is the carpet page on f. 198v, which was removed from its probable location at the beginning of Luke's Gospel at some unknown time.  It was later rebound in its present location upside-down and reversed recto to verso (see the recto, f. 198r, to see just how upside-down it really is).  Thanks to everyone who played along!

- Sarah J Biggs

05 June 2014

Medieval Comics Continued (Not for the Squeamish!)

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In our first post on medieval comic strips, we promised blood and gore and true romance, and so here it is – but beware!  Of course, Bibles and theological books can contain some really good material, but we have found great examples, too, in works of science, history and allegory. 

A 12th-century Medical Collection - Horrible Science

Perhaps this is stretching the analogy a little as there is no story-line, but here the comic-strip format is used for instruction in medical procedures.  The captions in Latin indicate the affliction that is being treated and the images are certainly gory – ouch!  There probably weren’t very long queues to see these GPs and not many would have made it to a second consultation!

A  full-page miniature in four compartments of a doctor instructing an assistant on how to prepare medicine; two doctors operating on the head of a patient whose hands are tied behind his back; and two images of a doctor with patients who have cautery points marked on their heads and bodies, 4th quarter of the 12th century, England, N.? or France, N.?, Sloane MS 1975,
f. 91v

 Valerius Maximus: Memorabilia: intrigue and murder in Ancient Rome

Roman history is given comic-book treatment in this Paris manuscript from the 15th century. Here the story of Lucretia, early heroine of the Roman republic, is told in a series of very lifelike images.

Harley MS 4374 f. 211r 25744_2
Sextus Tarquinius threatens Collatinus' wife, Lucretia, with death (left), Lucretia commits suicide before Collatinus, Lucretius, her father, Brutus and Publius Valerius; King Tarquinius Superbus expelled from Rome (left), Lucretius, Collatinus, Brutus and P. Valerius swear to avenge Lucretia (right); P. Valerius Publicola, as Consul, orders his troops to remove the axe symbols of Tarquinius' authority (left), and orders his imposing, fortress-like palace to be demolished (right), France (Paris); between 1473 and c. 1480, Harley MS 4374, f. 211

Roman de la Rose - the original ‘True Romance’

In these images from a Rose manuscript, a range of characters including ladies and monks  have speech banners, each with a courtly phrase or lover’s lament, words that they seem to be saying themselves, like , 'Lonc temps vivre ne pouray' (I cannot live long), 'Ay ay nus ne doit amer' (Ai, nobody must love),  'Ma dame ie vous aim' (My lady, I love you), 'Lasse iai failli a ioie' (Alas, I am without joy).

Full-page image with two compartments containing 8 figures including men, women, monks and a nun, all pierced by the arrows of love and holding scrolls, France (Paris); c. 1320 - c. 1340, Royal MS 19 B XIII, f. 4r

Taymouth  Hours  - Amoras, a medieval Andy Capp?

In medieval legend, Amoras the knight is the classic anti-hero and hapless husband in one of a series of miracles associated with the Virgin Mary. When in need of money he sells his wife to the Devil in return for a chest of gold, but on  their way to hand her over, they pass a chapel. The wife prays to the Virgin, who takes her place when the Devil appears and drives him away forever. The legend of Amoras is told in the Taymouth Hours in a series of bas-de page images with captions. It extends over the lower margins of 5 pages, with each image representing an episode in the story.

Amoras the knight conversing with the devil, with a caption reading, ‘Cy fist ameroys le che[va]l[e]r omage au deable et a celi p[ro]mist de fere venir a li sa fe[m]me cele iour en un an.’ (recto);  Amoras opening a chest of coins, with a caption reading, ‘Cy le deable dona tresor a ameroise ap[re]s sun omage fere.’ (verso), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 162r-162v

Amoras taking his wife to the devil, with a caption reading, ‘Cy chevauche ameroyse et mene sa feme oue li ver le deable.’ (recto); the distraught wife of Amoras asleep before a large image of the Virgin and Child, with a caption reading, ‘Cy en g[ra]nt t[ri]stesce la fe[m]me ameroyse dort devaunt un ymage de n[ost]re dame.’(verso), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 163r-163v

Here, in the final episode, the Virgin Mary sees that the devils get what they deserve and Amoras is left looking foolish:

Amoras and the Virgin Mary riding, while two devils flee, with a caption reading, ‘Cy n[ost]re dame chevauche o amerois vers le deable en semblaunce de sa fe[m]me li noun sachaunt.’ 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 164r

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour through medieval comics, and that you have a chance to experience Comics Unmasked.

- Chantry Westwell

03 June 2014

The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts

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When we speak to visitors or students about our medieval manuscripts, we frequently find ourselves spending a significant amount of time talking about how such books were created.  We discuss the ways that scribes worked and artists painted, and quite often we will then be asked just how it is that we can know such details.  There are, of course, medieval manuals for craftspeople that still exist, but often we can find clues in the manuscripts themselves.  Writing was a skill that was hard-won and greatly valued, and many authors and scribes were memorialised by their artisan brethren.  We’ll devote an upcoming post to an examination of these artists themselves, but today will concentrate on images of scribes at work. 

Royal MS 10 A XIII f. 2v K90098-50
Full-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v

A spectacular leading example is that of St Dunstan, writing his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict.  Dunstan is shown in his bishop’s garb, seated in a spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable-looking chair.  On the stand before him is a manuscript, bound in a chemise fabric.  The opening lines of Dunstan’s text are already written in blue and red ink, and the saint is in the process of adding to them with ink from the pot before him.  In his right hand he holds a sharpened quill, while in the left he is wielding a knife.  This knife was a common tool, used to sharpen quills, scrape away scribal mistakes, and even hold the parchment in place while the author was writing.

Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

A knife is almost ubiquitous in medieval scribal scenes.  It can be seen employed in the image above, in which a more modest scriptorium is on display.  This miniature, from a copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal that once belonged to Charles V of France, shows a habited hermit in the act of writing at his desk; his quill dipped into the black ink that rests at his side and his knife steadying the page.  This scribe is working on a not-yet bound folio, which has been ruled with lines and is being held in place by a set of red weights.  Interestingly, we can see that rather than writing an original work, he is copying an older text, which rests on a stand above him; he has so far nearly completed the opening word.

Harley MS 4425 f 133r E070014
Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

One of our favourites (of course) is the miniature above, which you hopefully are all already familiar with.  In this scene, the author of the Roman de la Rose is seated at an elaborate workbench with his manuscript before him.  Interestingly, it appears to be a finished copy, bound with gilded edges, which is fairly unusual in these sorts of depictions.  Our author is holding a quill in his hand as he turns towards the viewer, and delightfully appears to have another quill tucked up into his cap.  On the shelf below him are other bound books, some scrolls, and a glass of water, while on his desk we can see two pots of ink, one black, and one red – he may be at work rubricating (marking in red lettering) with the latter ink.  Above the desk is what looks like a sheaf of papers hanging from a hook, although exactly what that is has been a subject of some debate – please do let us know your thoughts!

Arundel MS 43 c5483-07
Full-page miniature of Donatus writing his grammar, from Sedulius Scotus’ Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century, Arundel MS 43, f. 80v

Scribes didn’t always labour on their own, however.  A 12th century copy of Donatus’ Grammar is prefaced with a miniature of the scholar himself, hard at work.  He is surrounded by later inscriptions (and was apparently gifted by this inscriber with an odd variety of full-head crown), but he is also possessed of a small-scale assistant.  This tonsured man, labelled ‘Heinre’(?) is holding an ink horn, which he offers to Donatus.

Harley MS 2804 f. 188v E090574
Historiated initial ‘I’(nitium) of Mark and his lion writing the Gospel, from the Worms Bible, Germany (Middle Rhineland), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 188v

Such scribal helpers weren’t always human.  This is particularly the case with images of the four Evangelists, who are often shown being assisted by their animal (or angelic) counterpart in the tasks of writing their Gospels.  One especially charming example comes from the Worms Bible.  On the folio above, St Mark is writing the opening words of his Gospel attended by his lion, who helpfully holds the Evangelist’s ink-horn in his teeth while simultaneously serving as a bookstand. 

Royal MS 17 E III f. 209r E024568
Detail of a miniature of a scribe demonstrating to his pupils, from Jean Corbechon’s translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 E III, f. 209r

Royal MS 19 C II f. 48v G70017-94a
Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her,from Laurent d’Orleans’ La somme le roi, France (Paris) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

Of course, writing well was a skill that took years to develop, and careful training was necessary.  Many manuscripts include images of masters inducting their pupils into the secrets of the craft.  Interestingly, it’s rare to find an example of a student actually practicing writing; instead the pedagogical technique seems to have required them to watch closely (and occasionally express admiration for the scribe’s labours).  That said, we found one such example of apprentices at work, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen.  In the scene at the bottom we can see a busy scriptorium; fittingly for this manuscript, the young men are working under the supervision of a woman, Io.

Detail of a miniature of a scriptorium under the supervision of Io, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 109r

At the end of a long apprenticeship – and presumably, eventually some actual writing practice – a pupil could hope to one day become a master scribe, a profession that was highly respected.  So much so that the tools of the trade were proudly displayed by those who had earned them, through sometimes literally back-breaking labour.  As the 10th century scribe Florentius of Valeranica wrote: ‘Because one who does not know how to write thinks it no labour, I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering. Therefore, turn the pages slowly, reader, and keep your fingers well away from the pages, for just as a hailstorm ruins the fecundity of the soil, so the sloppy reader destroys both the book and the writing. For as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe.’  

Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Royal MS 19 C XI f. 27v K040500
Detail of a miniature of a scribe with a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot, from Jean de Vignay and other texts, France (Paris?), 1st or 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C XI, f. 27v

And that will be our last line; stay tuned for our next instalment on the subject of artists in medieval manuscripts!  As always, please do let us know about your favourites in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

01 June 2014

A Calendar Page for June 2014

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

In these calendar pages for the month of June, the agricultural labours for the summer are beginning in earnest.  In the first roundel of our calendar pages, we see a peasant at work scything in grass in a field surrounded by a wattled fence (beautifully highlighted with gold paint).  Behind him a man and a woman are similarly employed, while in the background there is a gorgeous landscape characteristic of Bruges illumination of the period, with a peasant’s hut, spired buildings, a manor house, and even a windmill.   On the facing folio, below a lobster-like crab for the zodiac sign Cancer, there is a charming summer scene.  Four young boys have cast their clothes aside and are swimming and playing in a local river.

Calendar page for June, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 6v

Calendar page for June, with a roundel miniature of boys swimming in a river, with the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7r

- Sarah J Biggs

31 May 2014

Scraped Away Songs

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As you may have already seen if you follow @BLMedieval on Twitter, we have just uploaded images of one of the British Library's smallest but most important medieval music manuscripts onto Digitised Manuscripts.

Ave gloriosa virginum regina, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 3r

Egerton MS 274 is a fascinating and unusual collection of secular songs and liturgical music in French and Latin, written in northern France in the thirteenth century. The pages measure 15 x 10 cm, making this a perfect pocket-book for an individual singer. Some of the pieces are set for two different voices, though, which would have needed careful handling. You can read more about the contents at Trouvère Songs Online.

A two-part conductus 'Mundus a mundicia', from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 41r

The manuscript is one of the major sources of French chansons of the Trouvères, but frustratingly most of the first stanzas of the songs – as well as quite a number of the melodies – have been scraped away by a fourteenth-century scribe and replaced by Latin plainchant.

The words and music of a French song scraped away and replaced by a Latin responsory chant, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 102r

The book started life probably in the 1260s as a seamless collection of songs of divine praise and songs of courtly love, presumably intended for a noble patron who was as much involved at church as at court. A later owner in the fourteenth century evidently had less time for courtly love, and changed the function of the book, making a much more ecclesiastical compilation in the process.

Detail of a miniature of a monkey at work, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 37r

The manuscript contains a number of interesting miniatures throughout, including our favourite above, of a monkey at work - perhaps literally 'aping' the carpenter next to him.

We'll be adding some more medieval music manuscripts to the website over the next few months: keep an eye on this blog and our colleagues’ excellent Music Blog for more information.

-  Nicolas Bell

29 May 2014

A World of Words

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The Catholicon Anglicum, a fifteenth-century English-Latin dictionary acquired by the British Library earlier this year, is now fully online on Digitised Manuscripts.

Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483, Add MS 89074, f. 2r

The British Library possesses a world-class collection of materials for the study of late medieval language and lexicography.  The newly acquired CatholiconAdd MS 89074 – is the only known complete copy of the text, and was made in 1483.  An earlier, but fragmentary, example is also held at the British Library (Add MS 15562).  They are accompanied by a range of other late medieval bilingual dictionaries in the British Library’s collections.  Add MS 22556 contains an earlier English-Latin dictionary, the Promptorium parvulorum or ‘Storehouse for children’ attributed to Geoffrey the Grammarian, Dominican friar of King’s Lynn (fl. 1440).  A Latin-English dictionary, the Medulla grammatice or ‘Core of Grammar’ is found in two manuscripts (Add MS 33534, Add MS 62080) and in a third bound together with another copy of the Promptorium (Add MS 37789).

Beginning of Chapter 7 for the letter ‘G’, Add MS 89074, f. 65r

These dictionaries emerged at a time when the foundation of new grammar schools across England generated a demand for reference and pedagogical tools that aided students and teachers alike in Latin translation and composition.  The presentation and layout of the pages of the Catholicon Anglicum was designed to aid ready reference to its content.  The organisation of the words is largely alphabetical: each ‘chapter’ opens with a large, numbered heading that gives the opening letter for all the words that follow, and is further subdivided by marginal subheadings that give the second letter.  Flicking through the book, the reader could therefore quickly find the relevant section of the text and thus the relevant word he sought.

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including ‘to make Thyk’, ‘to be Thyk’, ‘to Thynke’ and ‘a Thynker’, Add MS 89074, 174r.

Each of the Middle English headwords is rubricated (written in red ink), capitalised with a ‘littera notabilior’, and aligned against the left-hand edge of the writing space.  The Latin translations follow in brown ink.  At a glance, the reader can differentiate between the beginning of a new entry and the continuation of one from a previous line, and distinguish between the Middle English and Latin words written by the scribe.  The compiler of the dictionary used the margins to insert words that signalled the parts of speech to which the headwords belonged: nouns are prefaced by the indefinite or definite article, and verbs by ‘to’ (thus giving the infinitive form). 

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including ‘a Rest’, ‘un- Rest’, ‘Restfull’, ‘Restfully’ and ‘un- Restfully’, and ‘a Restoratyve’, Add MS 89074, f. 141r

The compiler also exploited the margins in order to group families of words together that strict alphabetical order would otherwise have kept apart.  For example, adjectives are frequently accompanied by their antonym, with ‘un-’ written in the margin so as not to interrupt the alignment of the headwords. 

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including ‘to Iangyll’
and ‘Iangiller’, with cross-references to ‘to chater’ and ‘chaterynge’, Add MS 89074, f. 86r

Cross-references to other Middle English words that might yield further relevant Latin words were provided at the end of entries, the headword rubricated by red underlining and prefaced by ‘ubi’.

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including an example sentence for the use of ‘to Hele’, Add MS 89074, f. 80r

A remarkable feature of the Catholicon is the sheer number and variety of Latin words the compiler provided for each Middle English one.  Since these were not necessarily synonymous with one another, the compiler provided guides to grammatical construction as well as example sentences that showed how particular words were used.

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including the entry for ‘un- Kynde’ and a guide to the pronunciation of ‘degener cor[repto] ge’, Add MS 89074, f. 91r

Yet the Catholicon was not meant as just a silent tool, for use solely in written Latin composition.  It also belonged in an oral context, in which Latin was recited, read aloud, even performed.  Throughout the Catholicon, Latin words are accompanied by ‘correpto’ and ‘producto’, signifying when vowel sounds should be shortened or lengthened. 

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including verses on the uses of Latin words for ‘to Lufe’, Add MS 89074, f. 101v.

Mnemonic verses, which gave the reader a memorable guide to the usage of the Latin words, were probably intended to be rehearsed and memorised out loud, just like in classrooms today.

Detail of Middle English headwords and their Latin equivalents, including various exclamations involving the word ‘Alas’, Add MS 89074, f. 4r

The Catholicon must also have found use in the composition of Latin dialogue.  It opens not with a straightforward noun, verb or adjective, but an exclamation: ‘Aaa!’.  ‘Alas!’ and its Middle English variants are each enunciated: ‘heu’, ‘prodolor’, ‘prodolor pronephas’ (for ‘Alas for sorow’) and ‘propudor’ (for ‘Alas for shame’). 

The Catholicon is important as a source of Middle English words, some of them quite unusual and specific to Yorkshire dialect, and as an early ancestor in the English lexicographical tradition.  Its contemporary cultural significance is also considerable: the development of a sophisticated tool for the learning of the Latin language is an indicator of important changes in educational organisation, of its secularisation and spread outside traditional environments such as cathedral schools and monastic almonries.  The Catholicon – designed for oral as well as written purposes – sheds fresh light on the form that that teaching might have taken.  Its availability now to scholars in its original and unmediated form promises an exciting new chapter in Middle English and Latin studies.

- James Freeman