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05 March 2018

Polonsky Pre-1200 Project: we're halfway there

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From illuminated Gospel-books to heavenly depictions of the constellations, from texts in Old English to works on the natural world, the first fruits of our exciting collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France are ripe for the picking. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 has reached its halfway milestone with 400 manuscripts made before 1200 now digitised, newly catalogued and available to view online. A complete list of the manuscripts with links to the current image viewers can be found here: PolonskyPre1200 PDF (also available as PolonskyPre1200 Excel).

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A lively scene with musicians and a dancer from illustrated Psychomachia by Prudentius, in a late 10th-century manuscript from England: British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 19v

By the end of the Project a total of 800 manuscripts will be available through this resource, so the halfway point is a good moment to reflect on what the Project has achieved so far, as well what we hope to achieve over the coming months. As we focus on 500 years of collaboration and the coexistence of medieval English and French book culture and illumination, we are also currently exchanging texts and ideas. We are working together in close partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France on two exciting platforms for the display and interpretation of the manuscripts that have been digitised. All of the photography is now complete, and we are working on the design of a new IIIF compatible viewer that will be hosted on the BnF’s Gallica website. We are also writing articles and descriptions of many of the Project manuscripts for a new website hosted at the British Library, to explore the cultural and historical context of the manuscripts together with their artistic importance.

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Illustrated herbal in Old English picturing a mandrake, from 11th-century England: British Library Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

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Image of St Benedict handing a book to his disciple, St Maurus from the beginning of the Rule of St Benedict made in Nîmes in 1129: British Library Add MS 16979, f. 21v

To follow the progress of our French partner, do consult their new blog Manuscripta. For inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200). And, of course, follow our own Blog for regular updates.

 

The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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02 March 2018

Domesday Book is coming to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

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Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (19 October 2018–19 February 2019). As we previously announced, the exhibition will feature manuscripts that have not been in the British Isles for over 1,000 years, some of the earliest writing in English, and recent discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard. Today we are also thrilled to announce that the exhibition will feature Domesday Book, one of the most iconic manuscripts in English history.

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Part of the survey for Yorkshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2 (image courtesy of The National Archives)

Domesday Book will be generously loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by The National Archives. It represents one of the most remarkable administrative endeavours in the history of medieval government. Although often thought of as a spectacular achievement of the Norman invaders, it is also a uniquely rich record of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England.

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Domesday Book with Dr Claire Breay (Head of Medieval Manuscripts, The British Library) and Dr Jessica Nelson, Head of Medieval Collections, The National Archives

The volumes known as Great Domesday contain the final summary of a survey of land and property ownership in England, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085. Domesday Book was so-called because its judgements, like the Last Judgement on Doomsday, could not be appealed. As one government administrator put it in the 1170s, 'We have called the book ‘the Book of Judgement’ [liber iudiciarium or Domesdei in English], not because it contains decisions on various difficult points, but because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable' (Richard Fitz Nigel, Dialogus de Scaccario: The Course of the Exchequer, ed. and trans. by Charles Johnson and others (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 64).

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Part of the survey for Cheshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2 (image courtesy of The National Archives)

The Domesday inquest or survey was completed in a mere seven months. Domesday Book records the landholders, tenants and resources of over 13,418 settlements in England and some in Wales. It lists churches, forests for deer hunting, plough teams, slaves, meadows, arable land and other details. Not all regions are covered in the surviving survey. Cities such as London and Winchester were notably left out, together with England north of the River Tees. Even areas that are featured in Domesday Book do not always have complete information. There are some interesting examples of rural areas where plough teams and other resources are listed, but, mysteriously, no people. Nevertheless, Domesday Book provides unparalleled detail about the landscape and economy in England shortly before and soon after the Norman Conquest.

The country was divided into seven areas called circuits. Teams of nobles and officials, called commissioners, were sent to each area to record who owned which pieces of land and which humans and animals lived on the land, both between the time of King Edward the Confessor (1066) and the time the survey was carried out (1086).  Not ‘one ox nor one cow nor one pig was left out’, as one contributor to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained. A copy of the list of questions asked by the commissioners survives in the 12th-century Inquisitio Eliensis at Trinity College in Cambridge. This manuscript is also being loaned to the exhibition and will be on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

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A list of the questions asked by the Domesday commissioners: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.2.41, p. 161 (reproduced with the permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

The process by which the survey was compiled is revealed by Exon Domesday, which covers the south-western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Exon Domesday preserves evidence of how data was collected and reorganised in the phase of the survey which immediately preceded the compilation of Great Domesday itself, and we are delighted that part of the manuscript will be on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms as part of the story of the landscape of 11th-century England.

The exhibition will feature a number of books and documents from the British Library's own collections, alongside key manuscripts and artefacts loaned by other institutions. In addition to Domesday Book, visitors to the exhibition will be able to view Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus. In the coming months we will reveal more news about the exhibits and our events programme on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

­Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be on display at the British Library between 19 October 2018 and 19 February 2019. You can book your tickets for the exhibition here.

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01 March 2018

A calendar page for March 2018

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There’s something fishy about the blog today: it’s Pisces, the zodiac sign for March, from the 11th-century calendar we are exploring month by month this year (Cotton MS Julius A VI).

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A calendar page for March, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The zodiac symbol Pisces, represented by two fish, appears at the top of the page. Other zodiac symbols went through many different interpretations and presentations in different medieval calendars, even in closely related manuscripts. For example, Capricorn is depicted differently in this manuscript from the way Capricorn appears in its close relative, another 11th-century calendar also attributed to Canterbury (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). The representation of Pisces is remarkably consistent in much of medieval art, as two fish facing opposite directions, connected by a line.

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Detail of Pisces, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

Reading down the page, you’ll notice several gold crosses. These were added by an early user of the calendar (or possibly by its original scribe) to mark out important feasts. In contrast to the pages for January and February, each of which had one or two crosses, four feasts were highlighted with gold crosses on the page for March: the death of Pope Gregory the Great (12 March), the feast of St Cuthbert (20 March), one of the feasts of St Benedict of Nursia (21 March), and the feast of the Annunciation (25 March).

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Detail of the feasts of St Cuthbert, St Benedict and the Annunciation  marked out with gold crosses, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

This proliferation of important feasts may reflect the number of significant saints with feast days in March. The calendar and its models were probably made at a reformed monastery or cathedral, as discussed in the post for January. As a community that followed the Rule of St Benedict, his feast days would inevitably have been important to the calendars' creators and owners, and reformed monks were particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and her feast days. Meanwhile, Gregory the Great was celebrated in England for sending missionaries and establishing the see of Canterbury, while Cuthbert, the 7th-century Northumbrian saint, was popular throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages.  

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Saints Gregory, Benedict and Cuthbert are depicted in the front row of the choir of confessors. They can be identified by the names on their stoles. From the Benedictional  of St Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f.1r

There may also be another explanation for the number of feasts singled out in March. The month of March often coincided with Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. Sundays and major feast days were exempt from the fast. Perhaps it was in the annotator’s interest to highlight many important feast days when fasting could be suspended.

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Detail of diggers and sowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The page ends with the labour of the month. Here, labourers are portrayed digging and sowing. Sowing, along with ploughing, was also portrayed in the calendar page for January. However, sowing may not have taken place in January, and the January image may have been more symbolic. For many crops, March was closer to the time for sowing than January.  

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), click here. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, click here.

Alison Hudson

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28 February 2018

Rising from the ashes: bringing a medieval manuscript to life

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The British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has featured a host of fascinating manuscripts, alongside a fire-damaged cauldron, crystal balls and a ‘real’ mermaid. It took several months to choose all the exhibits, but when it came to selecting an image of a medieval phoenix, the choice was relatively simple. We have some gorgeous illustrations of phoenixes in our collections, but the one that really caught the curators’ eye was found in Harley MS 4751, a decorated English bestiary. But choosing the manuscript was only the start. We were planning to digitise this bestiary as part of our digitisation project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. This blogpost explores the complexities of that process.

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A phoenix collecting twigs (top image) and the phoenix consumed by flames in the funeral pyre (below image), from Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Some of our readers will already be familiar with our digitisation programme. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France is a collaborative project between the two national libraries of Britain and France, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts. Currently the British Library has made over 100 manuscripts available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But how does the digitisation process work? Here is a look behind the scenes at the work of the project team, from conservation to the final online publishing of the manuscripts. We are particularly grateful to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation, which is enabling some of our collections to be made available to view online.

Here we show step-by-step how this beautiful bestiary was digitised. Before any manuscript can be digitised, it may require an additional level of care from staff in the British Library Conservation Centre, in order to safeguard the manuscript during the digitisation process. First, our project conservator, Jessica Pollard, stabilised Harley MS 4751, in order that the manuscript could be photographed securely.

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Project conservator Jessica Pollard with Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Conservation Centre

Next, the bestiary was taken to the Library’s Imaging Studios for digitisation. Project photographer Carl Norman is an expert in safely handling rare and historical material like medieval manuscripts, and the studios are equipped with state-of-the-art photographic imaging systems, producing high quality images for use on Digitised Manuscripts. Carl shot images of the bestiary in carefully controlled conditions, with the light and temperature levels being monitored closely to protect the manuscript.

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Project photographer Carl Norman digitally captures the phoenix of Harley MS 4751 in the British Library Imaging Studios

After being photographed, the book was examined by our project cataloguers, experts in the study of medieval books. Manuscripts are catalogued through careful study of their texts, decoration and the materials used to make them. Our cataloguers also take to care to describe the history of the book and any known past owners. In this instance, they were able to determine that the bestiary was probably produced in Salisbury in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Finally, when both the photography and cataloguing were completed, our project digitisation officer published the fully digitised manuscript online. The complete process was achieved through the great teamwork of every member of the project, and we’re delighted with the results. You can view them now on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 4751 contains over 100 fascinating illuminations, ranging from domestic animals such as the goat and donkey to exotic animals such as the tiger and elephant, and mythical beasts such as the basilisk. Here is a small selection, we hope you can find many more to enthral you online.

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Miniature of goats in a medieval bestiary (Salisbury?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 14r

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Miniature of a donkey being prompted towards a waterwheel by a man with a stick and a whistle: Harley MS 4751, f. 25r

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Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror, illustrating the text that a tiger can outrun a man on a horse, so in order to steal a cub and escape, the thief should throw down a mirror, and the tigress will stop to look at its own reflection, thinking it is her cub: Harley MS 4751, f. 3v

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Miniature of an elephant with a wooden tower on its back, with soldiers with crossbows and other weapons: Harley MS 4751, f. 8r

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 Miniature of a basilisk: Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

 

The phoenix, of course, had a legendary ability to rise from the ashes. In its old age, it would create its own funeral pyre, fanning the flames with its own wings, before being reborn after nine days. It takes much, much longer to digitise a medieval manuscript, but we like the idea that, by our digitising our collections, we are giving new life to books made centuries ago.

British Library Harley 4751

 

The Polonsky Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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24 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

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Harry Potter: A History of Magic has been a rip-roaring success. Not only has every session of every day of our exhibition sold out (a first for the British Library), and not only did we sell more advance tickets than Tate's Hockney blockbuster, but the accompanying books have been bestsellers both in the United Kingdom and overseas. If you managed to get to London to see the show, you will have noticed that we had a wealth of extraordinary objects on display, from J.K. Rowling's autograph manuscripts and drawings to genuine witches' broomsticks and exploded cauldrons. The exhibition also provided the opportunity for the Library to showcase its own collections relating to the history of magic, across the world and across the ages; and that forms the subject of this blogpost. 

You may be aware that Harry Potter: A History of Magic is organised according to certain of the subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Readers of J.K. Rowling's novels will obviously be familiar with Potions, Herbology and Divination, but many of these themes are also rooted in real-life magic, tradition and folklore. This gave the exhibition curators the chance to call upon some of the British Library's world-class holdings of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. There were so many to choose from. Today we are delighted to feature some of them here, many of which can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We'd love you to tell us your favourites using the comments field or via our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval).

Potions

First up in the exhibition is a room devoted to Potions, followed by another relating to Alchemy. Among the items on display there are these four extraordinary manuscripts, ranging in date from the 10th century to circa 1600, and providing Anglo-Saxon recipes to instructions for making your own Philosopher's Stone.

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Potions against poisoning and snake bites, in Bald's Leechbook (England, 10th century): Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 41v

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An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript (France, 14th century): Sloane MS 1977, f. 49v

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Splendor Solis (Germany, 1582): Harley MS 3469, f. 4r

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How to make the Philosopher's Stone, in the Ripley Scroll (England, 16th century): Sloane MS 2523B

Herbology

Herbology is one of our favourite rooms, and here are some of the British Library manuscripts to be seen there, alongside, of course, our gnome alone. Previously on this blog, we've provided our readers with guidance on how to harvest a mandrake.

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Digging for herbs, in Extracts from an edition of Dioscorides, De re medica, assembled and illustrated by Gherardo Cibo (Italy, 16th century): Additional MS 22332, f. 3r

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A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal (Italy or Germany, 16th century): Harley MS 3736, f. 59r

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A centaur with centaury (centaurea minor), in a herbal (England, 12th century): Harley MS 5294, f. 22r

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A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r

Charms

Visitors to our exhibition will have been charmed to see this papyrus (described in our blogost It's a kind of magic), as well as an early example of the Abracadabra charm, originally devised as a protection against malaria.

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A ring captioned ‘May something never happen as long as this remains buried’, in a Greek handbook for magic (Thebes, 4th century): Papyrus 46(5)

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The first recorded mention of the phrase ‘Abracadabra’, as a cure for malaria, in Quintus Serenus, Liber medicinalis (Canterbury, 13th century): Royal MS 12 E XXIII, f. 20r

Astronomy

You cannot be Sirius. The sky's the limit with these manuscripts, which we selected to illustrate the historical study of the night sky. Among them is Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the Sun and Moon rotating round Earth.

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Sagittarius, in Cicero’s Aratea (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r

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Sirius, in a medieval miscellany (Peterborough, 12th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

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Miniature of astronomers on Mount Athos, studying the stars with astrolabes and quadrants, and inscribing strange characters in the dust with sticks, in a set of illustrations for Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, 15th century): Additional MS 24189, f. 15r

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Astronomical notes and sketches, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook (Italy, 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r + f. 107v

Divination

Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were never convinced by the methods they were taught to divine the future. If only they had been shown this 14th-century manuscript, they may have realised that Divination is a long-practised art.

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Reading the hands, in a fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r

Defence Against the Dark Arts

Beware the basilisk, my friends. A medieval snake charmer, in contrast, could always come in useful. 

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A basilisk, in Historia animalium (Italy, 1595): Additional MS 82955, f. 129r

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Image of a snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r

Care of Magical Creatures

And finally, we would like to share with you some of our beautiful unicorns and phoenixes, in the section of the exhibition devoted to Care of Magical Creatures. This unicorn is a very handsome chap, though some of his counterparts, strangely, have two horns.

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A unicorn, in Manuel Philes, On the properties of animals (Paris, 16th century): Burney MS 97, f. 18r

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A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

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A siren and a centaur, in a bestiary (France?, 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 47r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is completely sold out, sadly (it closes on 28 February); but we hope you've enjoyed this sneak preview into some of the manuscripts that have been on display. And you can read more about them in our exhibition books, available here.

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

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23 February 2018

Old English masterclass at the British Library

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In the 13th century, a mysterious annotator with shaky handwriting made marginal or interlinear notes (glosses) in around 20 manuscripts which belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory. The Tremulous Hand — as he is now known — was from one of the last generations of people who could understand Old English. He is thought to have suffered from a nerve condition called ‘essential tremor’, a type of uncontrollable shaking that mainly affects the hands, which today affects around four out of 100 adults over the age of 40. His glosses show that he was concerned that knowledge of the past, as well as knowledge of an earlier form of his language, should not be lost. Here at the British Library we regard him in very fond terms, because we try to do the same things today.

In one of the British Library manuscripts which contains glosses by the Tremulous Hand, we get a powerful sense of how much Modern English owes to Old English, but also to Latin. Have you ever felt amorous? Or maybe only loving? Presumably you’ve been to villages as well as towns? Have you ever contemplated the celestial realm, which we also call heaven? The words in these sentences have both Old English and Latin roots and some of them are largely unchanged from their earlier forms. If we take a look at this page of the manuscript in question (Cotton MS Otho C I/2), we get some sense of this.

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Gregory the Great's Dialogues (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Otho C I/2, f. 3v

Here you may be able to make out the words ‘amore’ [love] above ‘lufan’; ‘celestis’ [heaven] above ‘heofen’; ‘villa’ [town] above ‘tun’; ‘parentes’ [kinsmen] above ‘magas’; ‘abstinentia’ [abstinence, restraint] above ‘for-hæfednes’; and ‘sermone’ [speech,words, conversation] above ‘wordum’. In the last case, the letter that looks like a ‘p’ is actually a runic ƿ, wynn, for ‘w’… So, you see you can already understand some Old English and some Latin.

We like to think that if the Tremulous Hand ever came across the text called Ælfric’s Colloquy, he might have approved of it. The Colloquy, which was written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010), was an educational text aimed at helping novice monks learn Latin. It is structured like a conversation between a teacher and his pupils, who all have different professions. When we learn languages today, we often practice conversations, again not so dissimilar to our forebears.

In the copy of this text at the British Library, which dates from 1025–1050, a glossator (not the Tremulous Hand) added an Old English translation of the Latin text, in the spaces between the lines. In one exchange, the teacher asks his pupils: 

Interrogo uos cur tam diligenter discitis?
Ic ahsige eoþ forhƿi sƿa geornlice leorni ȝe? 

[I ask you, why are you so keen to learn?]

Quia nolumus esse sicut bruta animalia que nihil sciunt nisi herbam et aquam. 
Forþam ƿe nellaþ ƿesan sƿa stunte nytenu þa nan þinȝ ƿitaþ buton ȝærs 7 ƿæter.

[We do not want to be as wild beasts, who know of nothing but grass and water.]

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Ælfric’s Colloquy (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 64r

The Tremulous Hand would surely have agreed. He was keen that others after him should also be able to learn. Have you ever wanted to understand more about the Old English Language, and to be able to read some of the most magical texts of the Anglo-Saxon period? If so, please sign up for our Old English Masterclass, which will be held from 28–29 April. Places are strictly limited, so we advise you to book your place on the course soon.

You can find out more about the Tremulous Hand and Ælfric’s Colloquy on the British Library's new site, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which contains a host of accessible articles about aspects of literature in England from the 8th to the 16th centuries.

 

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 February 2018

The Lindisfarne Gospels carpet pages

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The copying and decoration of the Lindisfarne Gospels represent a remarkable artistic achievement. The book’s importance lies in the evidence of its production, the beauty of its illustration and the late 10th-century added gloss of its text that is the earliest rendering of the Gospels in the English language. The Gospels were made on Lindisfarne island, in Northumbria, around 700. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be viewed here in great detail, with the zoom function, on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Cotton MS Nero D IV).

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 3r

The book includes five highly elaborate full-page carpet pages, so-called because of their resemblance to Oriental carpets (indeed, some scholars have argued for the direct influence of carpets on their design). Four of the carpet pages appear before the beginning of a Gospel; the fifth precedes the book’s prefatory material. This material includes the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel-books, such as letters of St Jerome (d. 420), chapter lists and the ten canon tables (for more on the canon tables, see our previous blogpost). The first carpet page is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery for three months, as part of the manuscript's regular conservation rotation schedule.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 2v

Each carpet page has a cross pattern embedded in its design. It seems likely that these pages were designed to serve as a sort of interior treasure binding to ornament each Gospel as a mirror of the ornate exterior one that once was ‘bedecked with gold and gems’, according to the colophon. Certainly the affinities with surviving contemporary precious metalwork such as the Sutton Hoo treasure are readily apparent in the carpet page panels, with their interlace patterns, intertwined sinuous and elongated twisted bodies and stylized birds’ and beasts’ heads. 

From April 2018, the Lindisfarne Gospels will be off display in compliance with the conservation rotation schedule, which requires that the manuscript be rested for six months once it has been on show for eighteen months. From 19 October, the Gospels will again be on display as part of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

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06 February 2018

Independent woman: Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

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If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be aware that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave some women in Britain the right to vote. The commemorations being held this year celebrate earlier efforts to enfranchise women, as well as examples of remarkable women from former times. In recent months, this blog has featured the Greek poet, Sappho, and Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen. 2018 also marks the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who is the subject of today's blogpost.

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Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

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This Mercian prayer-book probably belonged to Æthelflaed's mother, Ealhswith: Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians ('Myrcna hlæfdige'), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ ('rædenne'). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.

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A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle showing the entries of the Mercian Register: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 140v

You may wonder how we know so much about Æthelflaed. We are fortunate in Æthelflaed's case because a narrative of Mercian affairs, for the years 904–924, is found embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’, and it provides a very different account of events from the main text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on Edward the Elder. For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one chronicle focuses on Edward building a burh; the other details the causes and results of Æthelflaed’s military campaign into Wales.

The Mercian Register was copied into three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all of which are held today at the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, Cotton MS Tiberius B I and Cotton MS Tiberius B IV). A medieval library catalogue from Durham also refers to a copy of ‘Elfledes Boc’, now lost, which can possibly be identified as ‘Æthelflaed’s chronicle.’ Although Æthelflaed is mentioned in West Saxon and later Irish sources, our knowledge of her career would be greatly diminished if the Mercian Register did not survive.

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Æthelflaed was remembered long after her death. Here she is depicted in a roundel from a 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England: Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 2

Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: 'The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people' (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great).

Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, 'the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67). England would have to wait several hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

 

Alison Hudson

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