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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

09 January 2018

The Carolingian quest for the correct text of the Bible

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The British Library was recently abuzz with the news that Codex Amiatinus — the oldest surviving copy of the complete text of the Latin Vulgate Bible — will be returning temporarily to Britain in 2018 for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Another important early medieval pandect Bible (containing the entire Bible in one volume) has now been digitised as part of the ongoing England and France 700–1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript (Add MS 24142) is a fascinating example of the painstaking efforts to improve the biblical text by Carolingian scholars. It is one of the oldest of the six surviving Theodulf Bibles, so-called after the reviser of the text, Theodulf (b. 750–760, d. 821), the bishop of Orléans and Fleury. Two of the remaining five copies are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (cod. lat. 9380 and cod. lat. 11937). The remaining three reside in the collections of Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart (MS HB. II 16), Le Puy Cathedral, France (Trésor de la Cathédrale, unnumbered), and Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen (MS NKS 1).

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A marginal correction at the end of Ezekiel, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, detail of f. 108r

In the 8th century there was an abundance of different versions of the text of the Bible — of varying quality — in use across Europe. During the same period, the realm of the Carolingian dynasty (who took over as kings of the Franks from the Merovingians in 751) gradually expanded. Under Charlemagne (r. 768–814) it reached its greatest size, as an empire covering most of western Continental Europe. Reform and unification of the Church was an important issue for the Carolingian rulers and other elite members of society, and concerns about this variation in Bible provision and its effect on the liturgy grew. Establishing throughout the entire realm a revised text of the Bible, the most essential Christian text, was central to these reform efforts. This is made explicit in the General Admonition of 789, a collection of legislation issued by Charlemagne:

‘Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing …, the songs, the calendar, the grammar …, and the catholic books; because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of faulty books’ (translated by Paul Edward Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd edn., Toronto, 2009).

Theodulf was one of the key figures in Charlemagne’s circle of intellectuals and Church reformers. It was also Theodulf who produced one of the most ambitious efforts to answer Charlemagne’s call to ‘correct carefully’ the Vulgate text. He compared the various versions, using the best exemplars he could acquire. Not content with the first drafts of his work, Theodulf continued to revise the resulting text as new exemplars became available. The six surviving copies of his biblical text all reveal different stages of this continuous revision process with corrections, and sometimes alternate readings, recorded in the margins. In other words, Theodulf’s method was similar to how critical editions of texts are prepared today.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St John, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, f. 222r

The resulting manuscript copies were clearly meant for close scholarly reading and reference, rather than for use in the liturgy. This is immediately clear from the rather modest dimensions and plain presentation of Add MS 24142. The Theodulf Bibles were written in a tiny version of Caroline minuscule script (the clear and legible script promoted throughout the Empire by Charlemagne) that was usually only used for marginal glosses.

Follow the link to the digitised Add MS 24142 to see how the specific function of this rare copy of the biblical text affected its form. Instead of decorated initials or illustrations, the transition between books is made clear to the reader by headings in a slender uncial script (a script originating in the classical world and consisting entirely of capital letters). Only occasionally is a simple rectangular border decoration added to further mark the division. The beginning of St John’s Gospel in the second column, above, is one example of this pragmatic arrangement. The British Library’s copy also stands out since it is arranged in an unusual three-column layout — maximising the amount of text on each manuscript page even further — whereas the four later Theodulf Bibles have the more standard two columns. These features combine to make Add MS 24142 a practical and relatively lightweight pandect Bible in comparison to most surviving medieval pandects, and it can be comfortably handled by one person.

 

Emilia Henderson

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07 January 2018

Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen

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Lady Jane Grey is one of England's least fortunate monarchs. Aged just 15, she was catapulted to the throne in July 1553, in succession to her cousin, King Edward VI, in order to prevent the accession of Mary Tudor. Nine days later, she was deposed in favour of Mary, and taken into custody at the Tower of London. Within four months, she had been convicted of high treason; and on 12 February 1554, the erstwhile and never-crowned Queen Jane was beheaded on Tower Green.

On BBC Four this week will be broadcast a three-part documentary, England's Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey. Presented by Dr Helen Castor, the documentary was filmed in part at the British Library and features interviews with Dr Andrea Clarke (Lead Curator, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts). Among the manuscripts shown by Andrea to Helen Castor are the diary of Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey's very own prayerbook.

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The prayerbook of Lady Jane Grey (Harley MS 2342, ff. 74v–75r). The inscription written by Lady Jane Grey to Sir John Bridges, Lieutenant of the Tower, reads, 'Forasmutche as you have desired so simple a woman to wrighte in so worthye a booke (good) mayster lieutenaunte therefore I shall as a frende desyre you and as a christian require you to call uppon god to encline youre harte to his lawes to quicken you in his waye and not to take the worde of trewthe utterlye oute of youre mouthe ...' 

England's Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey will be shown on BBC Four at 9pm on Tuesday 9 January, Wednesday 10 January and Thursday 11 January.

Dr Andrea Clarke and Helen Castor at the British Library %28c%29 DSP & BBC (2)

Andrea Clarke with Helen Castor at the British Library

 

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04 January 2018

Glimpses of early Christian splendour in Constantinople

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For over one thousand years Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a byword for awe-inspiring splendour. Named after the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire there in 324, the city also became the Christian capital of the world.

The Golden Canon Tables (British Library Add MS 5111/1 [ff. 10–11]) are spectacular witnesses to the remarkable quality of painting undertaken in Constantinople to embellish Christian texts. For one modern authority, they are ‘perhaps the most precious fragments of any Early Christian manuscript’ (Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, p. 116). Now mere fragments, they both hint at what fine early manuscripts of the Bible we might have lost and caution against rash generalisations based merely on those that have survived. The Canon Tables are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website to view in glorious detail with the zoom feature.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10r

As we mentioned in a blogpost several weeks ago, as a text the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries. Of the two thousand or so manuscripts that each contains the Four Gospels in Greek (literally, the Tetraevangelion), the vast majority begin with these tables. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2–9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. The present leaves are rare witnesses of an early revision of Eusebius’s tables.

The Golden Canon Tables are a chance survival. Separated from the text of the Four Gospels that they once prefaced, they were added to a Greek Gospels written sometime before 1189. As they survive, the tables comprise the end of Eusebius’s letter, part of Canon 1, all of Canons 8–9 and part of Canon 10. Originally each of the two leaves would have been around twice as large. Both letter and tables are written in an imposing majuscule, or upper case, script on parchment previously painted entirely with ‘shell’ gold, that is powdered gold suspended in a binding medium so-called because this pigment was often kept in a shell in the early Christian and medieval periods.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Each is framed by magnificently illuminated columns and arches that distinctively combine rigorous geometric and linear forms with remarkable naturalistic features. Carefully drawn outlines and regularly applied paint stress the surface qualities of the overall architectural scheme. Elsewhere lavish and energetic brushwork emulate three-dimensional, natural forms, including lushly growing flowers and colourful birds. The letter is enclosed by one wide arch that once extended to the full width of the page and the tables by two narrower arches on each page.

Within the tables each of the arches is inscribed at the top with the canon number and subdivided below into further smaller arches, each of which is headed by the abbreviated name of the relevant Evangelist. Below each of these smaller arches are the parallel lists of section numbers for each Gospel, written in Greek letters and in groups of four.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r (detail)

Within the surviving arches are four complete medallions with male bust portraits, three of which bear haloes. Each of these medallions emulates an ancient Roman form of portraiture known as the imago clipeata (shield portrait) which honoured the dead by a bust set within a round, shield-shaped form. The Christian symbol of the fish is included in the decorated arch directly above the bust portrait heading Canons 8 and 9. When complete the Golden Canon Tables probably contained twelve bust portraits. It has been argued that these memorialised the Apostles and were inspired by similar busts set in the arcades of the rotunda mausoleum of Constantine the Great located beside the Church of the Apostles at Constantinople.

For more information about Greek illuminated Gospels in general, including the Golden Canon Tables, please see our webspace dedicated to Greek manuscripts.

 

Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Die spätantiken Kanontafeln (Göteborg, 1938), pp. 127–46.

Carl Nordenfalk, ‘The Apostolic Canon Tables’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 62 (1963), 17–34 (pp. 19–21).

Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination (London, 1977), pp. 19, 29, 116, pl. 43.

Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, ed. by David Buckton (London, 1994), no. 68.

John Lowden, ‘The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration’, in Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, ed. by John Williams (University Park, PA, 1999), pp. 9–59 (pp. 24–26).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here

 

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01 January 2018

A calendar page for January 2018

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2018 is going to be an exciting year at the British Library: as we recently announced, our major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens on 19 October. In the coming months we will be exploring an item from the upcoming exhibition, an 11th-century calendar illustrated with text in gold and drawings depicting seasonal activities. We hope some of our readers will be able to come and see it in person in the exhibition at the end of the year. For an explanation of medieval calendars, please see the introduction to our first calendar of the year.

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Page for January, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

This calendar is one of only two to survive from early medieval England with detailed illustrations of farming, hunting and feasting. It forms part of a collection of material for calculating time and dates, such as tables for calculating lunar cycles and a tiny world map. It was probably owned by a monastic community who needed timekeeping materials to maintain the strict schedule of services demanded by the Rule of St Benedict. The calendar is now bound with a copy of poems, the Expositio hymnorum and canticles, copied at a slightly later date. They may have been together even in the medieval period. Both the hymnal and the calendar seem to have been made by talented scribes at a major scriptorium, such as that at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury.

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Diagram pertaining to lunar cycles, centring on a tiny world map: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 15r

Both the text and illustrations are closely related to the calendar in a collection of geographical and chronological material made in southern England in the mid-11th century (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). Both feature the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, a poem with 365 verses, one for each day of the year. The illustrations for the various labours of the month are very similar as well. Both show ploughing scenes, each having three figures, with a bearded man guiding the plough.

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Some scholars have speculated that these images may be rare manuscript depictions of Anglo-Saxon slaves. In a dialogue written to help students practise Latin, the Anglo-Saxon writer Ælfric (fl. 980s-1000s) has the ploughman lament, ‘The work is hard, because I am not free.’

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Detail of the ploughman’s dialogue, from Ælfric’s Colloquy: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 61r

Ploughing might seem like an odd choice to depict on a calendar page for January, when the weather is cold and the ground is hard. Some scholars argue that ploughing came first in the calendar because it was a fundamental part of the agricultural cycle and also because the imagery of ploughing was used in religious symbolism. In the Bible, teachers and religious leaders are compared to people scattering seeds (Matthew 13), like the man walking behind the plough. As the users of this calendar — possibly a community of monks — prepared for the year ahead, the image of a plough may have focused their minds on practical priorities.

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Beyond the labours of the month, each page of the calendar includes a wealth of information about astronomy, time, astrology and history, packed into pages only 200 by 130 mm. Each page begins with a few lines about the zodiac signs associated with each month. Nearby, a roundel illustrates the zodiac sign for a given month. In the case of January, it is Capricorn. Medieval scribes depicted star signs including Capricorn in creative and diverse ways. In the Julius calendar, Capricorn has a fish-like tail, in contrast to the Tiberius calendar, where it is depicted with hooves.

Below, each day is represented by one row. Each row includes, among other things:

  1. Roman numerals representing 'Golden Numbers', which were used to determine lunar cycles in a given year.
  2. Greek letters, representing numbers used for calculations. Greek letters were used in calculations by early medieval scholars including Bede and Abbo of Fleury.
  3. The letters A–G in blue, representing different days of the week.
  4. Roman calendar days (kalends, nones and ides).
  5. A verse for the day, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.
  6. A gold cross, if the day coincided with a special feast day. The only feast day marked out on this page is 6 January. Judging from surviving descriptions of liturgy and hymnals from Thorney, Winchester and Exeter, services for Epiphany in tenth- and eleventh-century England were elaborate affairs, commemorating not only the Magi’s visit to Christ on that day, but also  his baptism and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, where Christ turned water into wine.

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Detail of calendar page: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Detail of gold crosses marking special feast days: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

 

Alison Hudson 

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30 December 2017

Digging for inscriptions in medieval manuscripts

Inscriptions are one of the key sources for understanding premodern history. Monuments carved in stone could outlast even the most carefully preserved papyri, and there are thousands of people in ancient times that go completely undocumented save for a single inscribed memorial. But monuments were subject to the elements, destroyed, and reused as building materials. We can look for evidence of lost inscriptions in medieval and early modern manuscripts.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add. MS 34758, f. 311r.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add MS 34758, f. 311r

Interest in inscriptions never completely died away during the Middle Ages. The Carolingians preserved some of the most important collections of inscriptions, such as that in Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 326(1076). Within the field of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), these are called a ‘sylloge’. Such collections might be found as part of a travelogue, or simply copied as a note with an unrelated text. British Library Harley MS 3685, ff. 3r–5v, includes an important witness of the inscriptions Pope Damasus designed for the new Roman catacombs of the martyrs, now destroyed. Add MS 34758 was made at the monastery of St Andrew in Rome in the late 14th or early 15th century: after a copy of the Lives of the Desert Fathers comes two pages of inscriptions from Rome relating to its emperors (f. 311r–v). This text was copied in the same hand as what precedes it: either it was of interest to the original compiler, or it was copied along with the rest from an earlier manuscript. It shares some features with a well-known sylloge by Niccolò Signorili, suggesting a common source.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r

Other inscriptions end up in manuscripts almost by accident. In Royal MS 12 B XXII, a copy of Calcidius’s Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus, an inscription from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, datable between 10 December 123 and 9 December 124, has been included at f. 2r. It was likely written into the margin of an earlier copy, and was copied along with the rest as if it were a rubric or heading. This inscription was not known from any other sources before a reader noticed it in the 20th century.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v

The most visually impressive example of manuscript epigraphy in the British Library is Stowe MS 1016, made by the scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito (1433–1511) some time after 1502. It includes a copy of a sylloge by his friend Fra Giovanni Giocondo, here in its third recension: he continued to revise the text as he saw new inscriptions. The results are stunning, even if some of the coloured monuments speak more of Renaissance than Classical tastes.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r

The use of manuscripts for finding evidence about inscriptions is best known for Roman epigraphy, but it continues to be applicable in the modern day. Many inscriptions of Aphrodisias are best preserved in the notebooks made by William Sherard in 1705–16 while he was British consul at Smyrna (Add MSS 10101–2), with fair copies in Harley MS 7509. Ancient monuments continue to be threatened by war, neglect and pollution. Such documents are a poignant reminder of the importance of preserving the past while there is still time.

Andrew Dunning

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29 December 2017

Thomas Becket's martyrdom

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29 December is the anniversary of one of the most controversial events in medieval Christendom: the murder at Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket, in 1170. Becket's assassination brought a bloody end to a long-standing political conflict between the archbishop and King Henry II, who was believed to have been implicit in the killing. In the following decades, an international cult grew up around Becket, with far-flung claims of miracle cures and the re-building of the cathedral to house the martyr's tomb.

Two of the earliest illustrations of Becket's murder, both made in the late 12th century, are found in manuscripts held at the British Library. One of these manuscripts, Cotton MS Claudius B II, has recently been digitised in full by The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project; the other, also available online, is found in Harley MS 5102.

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An early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

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A second early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Becket kneels before the altar, and one of the four knights, perhaps William de Tracy, delivers the first blow, which cuts into the arm of Edward Grim, the cross-bearer; Reginald FitzUrse (identified by the muzzled bear on his shield) strikes the top of Becket's head: Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

The first of these manuscripts was made for Cirencester Abbey, and it contains a collection of Thomas Becket’s letters, assembled by Alan of Tewkesbury. It was made in the 1180s, within twenty years of Becket’s death, when his memory was fresh and his fame was expanding quickly. The makers of this book gave it the kind of luxury treatment associated with the holiest texts. An exquisitely decorated initial, shown below, marks the beginning of the preface, John of Salisbury's Life of Becket. John was a close associate of Becket, and the Life was composed within two years of the archbishop's death.

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The opening of John of Salisbury’s Life of Thomas Becket. Click on this link and hover over the image to reveal interactive annotations: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 2r

The initial 'P' is extravagantly decorated with blue, pink and green vine scrolls inhabited by peering quadrupeds (which remind us of Dr Seuss). Two monstrous faces decorate the stem and bow of the initial. The top and bottom of the stem terminate in ribbon interlace. The whole initial, which looks in the flesh like coloured wire laid over liquid gold, is presented on a patterned background of dark pink quatrefoils with a gilded border. When crafted, the gilding would have been applied first and then the gaps meticulously filled with pigment. The de-luxe treatment is reminiscent of the treatment of the Lives of other, more established saints, and could perhaps have been understood as an expression of Becket's bona fide sanctity. You can read more about one of the scribes of this manuscript in our blogpost, Where's Wally?

The second manuscript comprises a series of five full-page miniatures inserted in an early 13th-century Psalter, perhaps made in the East Midlands of England. The burial of a cleric, perhaps Becket himself, forms the subject of one of the other miniatures.

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Miniature of the burial of a cleric, perhaps Thomas Becket. The upper right monk is holding a white object in his hand, perhaps a fragment of the saint's skull, which had been shattered when he was murdered: Harley MS 5102, f. 17r

Here we can see the two images of Becket's martyrdom side-by-side. There are several contemporary and near-contemporary accounts, some of them by eyewitnesses, of the events in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of 29 December 1170. These two manuscripts reinforce certain elements of the story â€” the number of assailants, Becket kneeling before the altar, his companions watching from the wings — and they bring us as close as may ever be possible to visualise Thomas Becket's martyrdom, though medieval eyes.

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Two early witnesses to Becket's martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r and Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

 

Julian Harrison and Amy Jeffs

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28 December 2017

A poem for literally all seasons

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As followers of the @BLMedieval Twitter account know, some of us are fond of the hashtag #OTD. Short for ‘On this day’, it is used to recall which historical events took place on a given date. It’s a great excuse to highlight items from the British Library’s collections. In a way, it’s also rather medieval. When Benedictine monks assembled for their daily chapter meetings, they would have read an excerpt from a martyrology about which saints were commemorated that day and the next. Some medieval calendars included entries for every single day, and one of those is known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.

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The entries for December, from the oldest copy of the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Winchester?, 1st quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

The metrical calendar of Hampson survives in four manuscripts, all made in England in the 10th or 11th century (and three of which are held at the British Library). It takes its name from R.T. Hampson, its 19th-century editor. The calendar comprises 365 verses, one for each day of the year. To take account of leap years, medieval calendars added a second 24 February, instead of adding an extra day at the end of the month, known as 29 February.

The oldest surviving copy was made in England in the first decades of the 10th century. It was added to a 9th-century Psalter from the region that is now France (Cotton Galba A XVIII). The poem mostly lists saints commemorated on each day, but it also includes information about the movement of the moon and planets and some versions note the deaths of King Alfred and his queen, Ealhswith. The poet(s) sometimes had to stretch to fill some days. For example, the entry for 28 February roughly translates as, ‘This is the last day of February.’ In other instances, however, the poet(s) used vivid, memorable imagery. The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August was described as the day the Virgin Mary ‘crossed over to the stars.’ Meanwhile, 29 August was listed as the day John the Baptist’s ‘neck was truncated with a sharp sword’.

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The entries for September, from a calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7r

There are two more versions from the first half of the 11th century, both associated with Canterbury or another major scriptorium: Cotton MS Julius A VI and Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Cotton MS Julius A VI contains a series of scientific diagrams and tables, now bound with a hymnal made a decade or two later. Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 includes a range of texts on astronomy, geography and chronology, and includes an early world map. The fourth, abbreviated copy of the metrical calendar is found in an early 10th-century Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27).

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The entries for August, including the feasts of the Assumption and the Decollation of John the Baptist, from a calendar, Canterbury?, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The origin of this poem is debated. It includes many Irish and northern French or Flemish saints, leading some to claim that it was composed by an Irish or continental scholar working in England. There were certainly plenty of candidates: the inhabitants of several northern French churches fled to England following viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th century, while many Irish and continental scholars stayed at the West Saxon court. Alternatively, the surviving poem may have been based on calendars composed elsewhere but modified by someone working in England.

The date when the earliest surviving version of the poem was compiled is slightly easier to narrow down. The oldest copy was made after Alfred's wife, Ealhswith, died in 902, since it mentions her death in the verse for 5 December: ‘The fifth [day] has dear Ealhswith, true lady of the English’. 

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Ealhswith’s death mentioned in Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

However, there could have been earlier versions of the poem. The references to Ealhswith and Alfred could have been added later and, indeed, one of the later calendars (Cotton MS Julius A VI) omits them. Instead of Ealhswith, the entry for 5 December in that calendar commemorates ‘dear Candida, true lady of the Franks’.

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Verse about Candida, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The precise origins of the poem remains a mystery. However, the surviving copies show that the calendar continued to be read and copied for well over a century. It’s easy to see the appeal of a calendar with a verse for literally every occasion. Even to this day, we are fascinated by events which happened #OTD. At least we don’t have to write our tweets in verse!

Alison Hudson

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26 December 2017

You cannot be Sirius

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Fans of a certain boy wizard will be familiar with Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s beloved godfather. In the Harry Potter books, Sirius Black was an Animagus, with the ability to turn into a shaggy-haired black dog. This is no coincidence, as his name was inspired by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which lies in the constellation known as Canis major (The Greater Dog). The British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories, and we are delighted that it features a wonderful 12th-century astronomical treatise (Cotton MS Tiberius C I), containing an elaborate illustration and description of the constellation Sirius.

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The constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

This manuscript was produced at the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew in Peterborough, sometime in the early decades of the 12th century. The astronomical treatise it contains is known as the Aratea, being a Latin translation (by Marcus Tullius Cicero) of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli. The description of each constellation is accompanied by a pen-drawing of either human or animal figures, with red dots representing the stars. In this instance, the constellation Sirius takes the shape of a dog, with the words written in black ink.

The body of Sirius (and the other figures in this manuscript) is infilled with an account of the origins and history of each constellation. They comprise quotations from the Astronomica written by Hyginus, an astronomical source-book. Sirius, from the Greek seirios aster, meaning ‘scorching star’, was thought to have been named by the Egyptian goddess Isis, because the star shone more brightly than any other. The dog days of summer were so-called because the hottest days of the year traditionally coincided when the Dog Star ascended to rise before the Sun, from late July until August.

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The constellation of Orion, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 27v

Sirius was also said to be the hunting dog of Orion. The constellation Orion is portrayed in the same manuscript as a man inside a house. According to the Astronomica of Hyginus, Orion was accidentally slain by the goddess Diana, as the result of a challenge that she could not hit him with one of her hunting arrows. To mourn his death, she placed him among the constellations. Bellatrix, meaning ‘female warrior’, is the third brightest star in the Orion constellation. Other figures in the night sky include the Hare, the Eagle, the Swan and the Centaur. The last-named was believed to be highly skilled in augury, that is, the interpretation of omens.

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The centaur was highly skilled in the interpretation of omens: the Centaur constellation, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 31v

Would you like to stargaze more? This illustrated Aratea has been digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project. It is now available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Two other copies of the Aratea can also be seen in full there, one made in 9th-century France and later taken to Canterbury (Harley MS 647) and the other made at Fleury around the year 1000 (Harley MS 2506).

Meanwhile, the wonderful manuscript illustrated above is currently on display in the Astronomy section of the British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Tickets can be purchased online, but they are selling extremely fast. The show has to end on 28 February, so catch it while you can.

 

Alison Ray

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