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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

19 May 2017

King Arthur: not just a man of the sword?

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Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for all versions of the King Arthur Legend, medieval and modern

A popular hero of our blog, King Arthur, is once again in the news with this week's UK release of Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. In yet another variation on the legend, the young Arthur in the film is a gangster in the back streets of Londinium, who is unaware of his royal lineage until he draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. He fights to conquer his inner demons, avenge his parents’ murder by defeating the tyrant Vortigern and win back his rightful crown. This all sounds rather violent, and violence is certainly a key element in the Arthurian tales. But there is so much more to the various legends of our favourite hero-king. 

Of course, medieval stories about Arthur featured lots of fighting. Medieval manuscripts often depicted Arthur battling demons and giants, as well as heathen kings.

  Add_ms_10292_f209v
Arthur and the black beast, from L'estoire de Merlin,  Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 209v

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Drawing of King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig, from Wace, Roman de Brut, England, c. 1325–1350, Egerton MS 3028, f. 49r

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Miniature of King Arthur and three knights slaying the heathen kings England, from The Fall of Princes, South-East England (?Bury St Edmunds), Harley MS 1766, f. 218r

Sometimes Arthur and his followers fought to rescue a maiden.

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A miniature of Arthur slaying the 'swine-eating' Spanish giant on the island of Mont St Michel, and rescuing Helena, niece of Hoel of Brittany, from Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, volume 1, Royal MS 15 E IV  f. 156r

And sometimes they acted in self-defence.

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King Arthur and knights are attacked, from Guiron le Courtois, Southern Italy, (Naples?), between 1352 and 1362, Add MS 12228, f. 126v

But often it seems he and his knights just enjoyed a good battle.

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A battle, from La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 125r

There are, however, differences between the modern film and common medieval stories about Arthur. Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life.

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Merlin at Arthur's baptism, from Le Livre de Merlin, Northern France  (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117,  f. 66r

This version of the sword in the stone incident is a bit different, too. For a start, it does not feature David Beckham!

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Arthur removes the sword from the stone and is blessed by Archbishop Brice, from Le Livre de Merlin, France, N. (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 73v

And in this version of the story, it is Merlin and two dragons who confront Vortigern, not Arthur.

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Detail of Merlin showing Vortigern two dragons, in L'estoire de Merlin, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 84v

There are many more stories about Arthur, and not all the incidents emphasize violence. This manuscript of the Chronicles of England features an image of Arthur’s coronation.

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The coronation of King Arthur, from the Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges); after 1471, before 1483, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 141v

Once crowned, King Arthur is busy with many varied activities according to the legend, not all of them involving bloody battles.

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King Arthur blowing a horn while hunting with Urien and Accalon, from the Suite de Merlin, Add MS 38117, f. 193r

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Arthur dictating to a scribe, from Le Morte Artu, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  140r

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Arthur on the wheel of fortune, from Le Mort Artu, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10294, f. 89r

He seems to end up in prison quite often, although there tends to be a damsel to look after him on these occasions.

Add_ms_10293_f144v
Arthur in prison, from Lancelot du Lac, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10293, f. 144v

And he also enjoys many a great banquet with Lancelot, Guinevere and his courtiers.

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Arthur and Guinevere at a banquet, while Lancelot kneels before them, requesting permission to leave the court, La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  89r

Royal 20 D IV f. 1
Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet, from Lancelot du Lac, Southern England (Pleshey Castle), c. 1360–1380, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 1r

Finally (SPOILER ALERT), in medieval versions there is no happy ending.  Arthur is killed at the Battle of Salisbury Plain and his noble vision of the Round Table is destroyed.

 

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The death of Arthur, from Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1479–c.1480; Royal MS 14 E V, f. 439v

But the legend lives on …. on the British Library website. You can find a virtual exhibition of some of our Arthurian manuscripts here.

Of our large collection of Arthurian manuscripts, some are fully digitised online on Digitised Manuscripts:

Add MS 5474: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 10292/Add MS 10293/Add MS 10294: The entire Prose Lancelot-Grail cycle

Add MS 12228: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 23929: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 23930: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 32125: Wace, Roman de Brut; the Anglo-Norman Description of England; Estoire del Saint Graal; Robert de Boron, prose Merlin

Add MS 38117: Robert de Boron, Joseph d'Arimathie, Le Livre de Merlin, Suite de Merlin ('the Huth Manuscript')

Add MS 59678: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

Egerton MS 3028: Wace, Roman de Brut and other texts

Harley MS 4419: Lancelot du Lac

Lansdowne MS 757: Lancelot-Grail

Royal MS 14 E III: Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu

Royal MS 20 A II: Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, the Lament of Edward II, fragments of Arthurian romances

Royal MS 20 D IV: Lancelot du Lac

Prose Brut Chonicles

Royal MS 12 C XII: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Royal MS 20 A III: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Prophecies of Merlin

Add MS 25014: An excerpt from the prologue of the Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

Add MS 25434: Prophecies of Merlin

Arundel MS 66: Astrological compilation including Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 1629: Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 3908: Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

And others are partially digitised in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with downloadable and searchable images, including:

Add MS 17443

Egerton MS 2515

Lansdowne MS 757

Royal 14 E V 

Royal MS 19 B VII

Royal MS 19 C XII

Royal MS 19 C XIII

Royal MS 20 B VII

Royal MS 20 D III

Chantry Westwell

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated. This is exemplified in a 1536 letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but evidently sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Fascinatingly, the letter shows that in 1536, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction. The letter from Sir Piers keeps up the appearance of this approach. He writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why.

Sir Piers does not, however, ask for the immediate seizure of the abbey itself: he instead proposes that Dom Rondul of Wilmslow, a monk at Vale Royal, become the master of the house. This is a rather odd suggestion, given that Vale Royal Abbey was Cistercian, while Norton was composed of Augustinian canons. Ostensibly, the replacement is suggested on account of his learning and devoutness, but one wonders whether something else is afoot, with his allusion to an unspecified undertaking that the monk is to satisfy:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Perus
                                                         Dutton K.

This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded the closures of abbeys. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed after arresting him, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Andrew Dunning

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13 May 2017

A doughnut by any other name?

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Doughnuts (donuts to our US readers) are a favourite sweet treat of many; a fried dough pastry served with a variety of flavours and shapes, all tried and tasted by Homer Simpson. But you may not know that the doughnut has much older antecedents. The British Library holds a 14th-century recipe for fried dough pastry in one of the first cookbooks written in English, the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016).

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Krispel Kreme: Recipe for ‘crispels’, a fried dough pastry from the Forme of Cury,
Add MS 5016

The Forme of Cury in modern English translates as Method of Cookery. This scroll is the oldest complete copy of the work, with 196 recipes. These include a recipe for ‘crispels’, round pastries basted in honey which may have been similar to our doughnuts today. To make crispels, one made a sheet of thin pastry and cut it into circles, then fried it in oil or grease and covered with heated honey:

Crispels. Take and make a foile of gode past as thynne as paper; kerue it out wyt a saucer & frye it in oile; oþer in grece; and þe remnaunt, take hony clarified and flamme þerwith. Alye hem vp and serue hem forth (transcription from Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth-Century (Including the Forme of Cury), Early English Text Society, 1985). 

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Miniature of bees on a honeycomb from Tractatus de herbis,
Egerton 747, f. 62v

The thin crispels may not have taken exactly the same, torus shape associated with the modern doughnut: that shape seems to have been associated more with scientific diagrams and treasure than with food in some medieval illustrations. Nevertheless, we're sure that Homer and other doughnut lovers would not object. 

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Doughnut’s Advocate: A devil watches as Avarice loads his safe with gold coins, from La Somme le Roi,
Add MS 54180, f. 136v

Donuts
Left: Doughnut shapes in gold vessels from a detail of a miniature of France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 300r; Right: Detail of doughnut shapes in a treasure trove, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (with marginal scenes added in London), c. 1300–c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 165v

Alison Ray

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11 May 2017

An ideal woman

What's your definition of the ideal woman? For centuries, the model woman of some Greek writers was pious, virtuous … and good at maths.

Burney 275 f. 293
Detail of an historiated intial with Geometry portrayed as a woman, from the works of Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle and others, translated by Gerard of Cremona, Paris, 1309–1316, Burney MS 275, f. 293r

For them, the ideal woman was Theano, a philosopher and mathematician who is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE. According to some of these later writers, she was a student and later the wife of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, musician and mathematician. As with most ancient figures, the details of her life is somewhat obscure: modern scholars debate who she was, or whether there were even two Theanos in Pythagoras’s circle.

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The entry for Theano in a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia (Suda Lexicon Additional MS 11892, f. 278r, copied in 1402 in Florence by Georgios Baiophoros)

Whoever she was (or they were), Theano seems to have been an important thinker in her own right. Later writers reported that she wrote tracts on virtue, piety and Pythagoras’s doctrines, and they attributed some witty aphorisms to her. In one of her commentaries on her husband’s writings, she was said to have remarked that, ‘if the soul were not immortal, death would be a blessing to us all.’ The most noteworthy incident recorded about Theano is when her arm was accidentally revealed in the market and someone noted ‘how beautiful your arm is’, to which she replied ‘maybe, but it’s not public.’

Sadly, none of Theano’s texts survive. A 14th-century manuscript in the British Library preserves a unique collection of seven epistles attributed to her. These letters promote the education of Greek women and critical thinking. The author of the letters addresses mostly women advising them on childcare, marriage and various household affairs. She wrote, ‘It is better to ride a horse without reins than to be an unreflective woman’.

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Copy of a letter purporting to be written by Theano, Harley MS 5610, f. 7v

In the first letter she addresses a mother called Euboule to criticize her for bringing up her children in luxury, noting that, ‘The mark of a good mother is not her concern for the children’s enjoyment, but rather an education towards moderation. Be careful: don’t be an indulgent mother rather than a loving one.’

For centuries, Greek writers considered Theano to be the ideal wife and mother. Although this did not lead to any of the treatises attributed to her being preserved, Theano’s long-lasting fame as an educator of mothers and wives has made her letters a popular read for generations.

Peter Toth

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09 May 2017

Save a prayer for Ælfwine

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Many people — even some historians of more recent periods — think that it is impossible to study small communities or individuals from early medieval history due to a lack of evidence. Certainly, the surviving sources limit what medieval historians can study; nevertheless, there are some manuscripts which illuminate the lives of particular individuals in surprising detail.

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Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from
Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became abbot of the New Minster, Winchester around 1031 and died in 1057. We know the names of his mother and other relatives and the dates they died. We know which prayers he may have said. We know how he envisioned what God looked like. We know the code he and his friends used (about which more later). We know how he predicted the weather and treated ulcers by eating a dish made from 9 egg yolks, wine and fennel. All of this information is preserved in his tiny prayer book, which survives in two volumes (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII) and has recently been uploaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.  

Measuring a handy 130 × 90 mm, Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains prayers, calendars, extracts from texts on natural phenomena, diagrams, images of religious scenes, medical recipes, a charm for catching a thief, and the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon prognostics (telling the future, or divination), in Latin and Old English.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f013v
Encoded inscription mentioning
Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

We know that this book belonged to Ælfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) because they are commemorated in a note written in code, between the calendar and the Easter tables. This code approximately involved replacing some vowels with the letter that follows them in the alphabet. Decrypted, it reads, ‘The most humble brother and monk Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.’ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ælfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ælfwine before he became abbot.

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Image of the Crucifixion with
Ælfwine’s name in a prayer, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

Although Ælfsige (Aelsinus) is the only scribe mentioned in the inscription, there was at least one other scribe, and possibly an additional illustrator, involved in the creation of Ælfwine’s prayerbook. Once the prayerbook was made, additions were made in further hands to the calendar and the Easter tables, noting the deaths of kings, other monks and Ælfwine’s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.

Although Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains many personal touches, such as the notices of the death of his biological and spiritual relatives, the book was also able to be reused by later readers — with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe — who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster — added female pronouns to some of the prayers. We can be sure she was a she, because she left a note in another manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 451) asking that the scriptrix remain safe and sound forever.

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The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ælfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ælfsige (Aelsinus) and the illustrator of his prayerbook to create the New Minster Liber Vitae, a collection of narrative texts, lists and images celebrating the New Minster’s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ælfwine’s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ælfwine as an individual. It suggests how he began his abbacy and the sorts of texts he was interested in preserving and the sorts of connections he and the illustrator wanted to emphasize that his house had. For example, the Liber Vitae begins with an image of King Cnut and Queen Emma making a gift of a cross to the altar of the New Minster. The New Minster Liber Vitae also includes some personal touches related to Ælfwine: a Wulfwynn, presumably his mother, appears in the list of queens and abbesses. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.

Stowe 944   f. 6v
Image of a saintly monk-bishop and a saintly abbot, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6v

Although Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) were by no means the most prominent churchmen in mid-11th-century England, the manuscripts they left behind give us a valuable window into the lives and interests of this pair of friends and colleagues.  Granted, these manuscripts are not as revealing as diaries or other genres more associated with later periods. Nevertheless, today's readers can still glimpse on Digitised Manuscripts select individuals who lived 1000 years ago.

 _______________

Le caractère disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent à tort, qu’il est impossible d’étudier le quotidien, les mentalités ou les représentations de communautés ou d’individus. S’il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une réalité exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumière un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, d’avoir une idée plus précise et détaillée de leur vie.C’est le cas du livre de prières d’Ælfwine aujourd’hui conservé en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), récemment numérisés et accessibles en ligne.

Ce volume de petit module qui appartint à celui qui fut abbé de New Minster de c. 1031 à sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de précieuses informations. Les noms de sa mère et d’autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de même que la date de leurs décès. Ce petit livre atteste évidemment des prières qu’avait coutume de prononcer Ælfwine, mais également de sa pratique de l’astrométéorologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes médicales pour soigner les ulcères.

Ce manuscrit est issu d’une collaboration entre l’abbé de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ælfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la même abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci s’inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes étant directement associés au gouvernement du monastère de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est étroitement lié aux intérêts et à la personnalité d’Ælfwine.

Ce n’est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuèrent leur association dans l’intérêt de leur monastère. Ælfwine commanda ainsi à Ælfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle d’images et des listes de saints célébrant l’histoire de l’abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte également plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement à Ælfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbé se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultérieurs.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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04 May 2017

Ready are you? More medieval 'Yodas'

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A long time ago (well, a couple of years ago), in a galaxy not so far away, Damien Kempf of the University of Liverpool noticed an image of Yoda hiding in one of the British Library's medieval manuscripts. The green-skinned, big-eared figure with tufty hair bears a surprising resemblance to the character designed by Stuart Freeborn for Lucasfilm almost 700 years later. Kempf's 'Yoda' was one of several fantastical creatures reproduced in the book Medieval Monsters.

This is not the only ‘Yoda’ to be found in a medieval manuscript. Since the 'Yoda' discovered by Damien Kempf was featured on this blog, other people have told us about more ‘Yodas’ they have noticed among the British Library's manuscripts. These include a collection of romances and stories complied for a middling member of the Yorkshire gentry to a deluxe, multi-volume book of hours once owned by Emperor Charles V. We'd like to share some of these images with you here. Ready are you?

Yoda
Detail of a ‘Yoda’-like grotesque, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The first ‘Yoda’ we mentioned appears in the Smithfield Decretals, a 14th-century copy of canon law decrees compiled for Pope Gregory IX. The text of the decrees appears in the central part of each page, with a commentary written around the edges. ‘Yoda’ is perched above a series of decrees about ecclesiastical elections and the jurisdictions of people elected to particular offices. The Smithfield Decretals was copied in Toulouse (in southern France) around the year 1300, but some of the decoration, perhaps including the Yoda, was seemingly added in England around 1340. At the bottom of this page, a man and a woman gesture at someone peeking out from a building. This scene, along with similar illustrations on the neighbouring pages, may tell the story of the Biblical hero Samson. 

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f030v
Page from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The decoration of such manuscripts was not necessarily related to their contents. Unnatural creatures often frolic in the margins of medieval manuscripts. These images, more commonly known as marginalia and sometimes called ‘grotesques’, are often strange, hybrid man-beast figures, or animals dressed and acting as people, usually in a playful or vulgar manner. Often there is no direct link to the text appearing above them. Apes dress as friars and priests, in a not-so subtle dig at the clergy, rabbits hunt dogs, and knights fight snails, turning the natural order of things on its head. Scholars have long debated the function and meaning of these images, and there is no single answer to what their original purpose may have been. However, their placement, especially when juxtaposed with serious religious texts, demonstrates the fluidity in medieval art — and medieval society — between the sacred and the profane. These ‘Yoda’ figures potentially serve a variety of functions: they are strange and amusing, but they might also have helped the medieval readers to remember a particular piece of text.

Add 31042  f. 50r
Page from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

Last year, another ‘Yoda’-like figure was spotted by Karol Pasciano in the London Thornton Manuscript (British Library Add MS 31042, f. 50r). This manuscript contains religious poetry and romances compiled by Robert Thornton, lord of a manor in East Newton, Yorkshire. The initial with a ‘Yoda’ and two other, human heads appears at the start of the alliterative Middle English poem, ‘The Siege of Jerusalem’.

Add 31042  f. 50r
Detail of an initial from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

It was traditionally thought that Thornton was himself responsible for decorating this manuscript and one other (Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91 (A.5.2)). However, Joel Fredell has recently suggested that the initials in Thornton's manuscripts could have been the work of several artists, possibly professionals based in York. Instructions elsewhere in Add MS 31042 suggest that Thornton appreciated creativity and imagination in the text and perhaps in their decoration: on f. 32v, he instructs that the text on the following page proceed ‘according to the scribe’s imagination’ (‘secundum Fantasiam scriptoris’).

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Detail of a border from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490–1494, f. 252v

‘Yodas’ are not solely found in the margins of manuscripts decorated in England. In contrast to Thornton’s uncoloured manuscript from Yorkshire, ‘Yodas’ can also be found  in lavish manuscripts produced during the Italian Renaissance. Another Twitter user has noticed two green heads with large ears in the margins of the Sforza Hours. This deluxe, multi-volume Book of Hours was originally made in the 1490s for Bona Sforza, duchess of Milan, by the Milanese court painter, Giovan Pietro Birago, and his assistants. Birago was Leonardo da Vinci’s better-paid contemporary; in Renaissance style he decorated the manuscript  with all'antica elements based on classical art. These elements included the paintings of gemstones, cameos, putti (like cherubs), and disembodied heads or masks in blue and green. The artists also depicted saints in lower margins. The page with the ‘Yodas’ also includes prayers relating to Anna the Prophetess. 

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Page from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490-1494, f. 252v

Some pages of this manuscript were subsequently stolen. A later owner commissioned replacements from the Low Countries in the early 16th century, but the ‘Yoda’ page seems to come from the earlier part of the manuscript. This gorgeous Book of Hours belonged to several major figures, including Margaret of Austria and her nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. One wonders what they thought about its decoration.

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Detail from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 24r

Recently, we have noticed yet another ‘Yoda’, marking the end of a line in the Luttrell Psalter. The Luttrell Psalter, made in the 14th century for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, is a cornucopia of weird and wonderful marginalia, so it is perhaps no surprise that a ‘Yoda’ is amongst the hundreds of other creatures crowding around the text. Here, a ‘Yoda’ fills up the space at the end of a verse of Psalm 9: ‘God is not before [the sinner’s] eyes: his ways are filthy at all times.’ 

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Yoda is that you?!? Details from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, ff. 61r, 65r, 70r, 72r

It is, of course, unfair to group medieval marginalia with reference to later works of science fiction. The artists who drew these large-eared, green-skinned creatures may have had a better understanding of what those features meant, if they symbolised anything at all. For example, the Rutland Psalter (shown above) features very similar-looking, big-eared heads in orange and green gnawing on borders. It is not clear that that artist intended the difference between these two creatures to signify anything beyond a varied colour scheme. In the same way, the Sforza Hours’ green ‘Yodas’ are joined by similar-looking, blue heads or masks on other pages, while a 15th-century Apocalypse picture book from Central Europe includes a whole host of big-eared creatures of various hues.

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Large-eared creatures, some with green skin, in and around the lake of fire and brimstone, from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

It is fun, nevertheless, to notice the similarities in the decoration of manuscripts containing different types of text and made in different contexts, from a local lord’s story collection in the far north of England to height of the Italian Renaissance. As Damien Kempf noted, 'Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.' ‘Modern’ imaginations and fantasies are not so dissimilar from those of a 15th-century Yorkshireman or a Milanese duchess.

We'd love you to tell us about other 'Yodas' you may have noticed. You can comment on this post below or via our Twitter feed @BLMedieval.

Alison Hudson and Taylor McCall

01 May 2017

A Calendar Page for May 2017

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Spring has well and truly sprung — let’s celebrate with a look at the calendar pages for May in everyone’s favourite Additional MS 36684! For more information on the manuscript, take a peek at January’s post, and for an excellent general guide to medieval calendars, please see our original calendar post from 2011.

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Calendar pages for May, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 5v–6r

While May doesn’t have quite as many frolicking nude figures as April, there is still plenty of fun going on. The labour of the month showcases the traditional aristocratic pastime of falconry (or hawking), with a gentleman astride his horse, a falcon perched on his right hand. A popular sport for the moneyed upper classes and royalty, falconry entailed using trained birds of prey to hunt small animals, and remained an elite status symbol for centuries.

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Falconry, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The marginal figures next to the falconer are the usual mash-up of animal and human hybrids, save for the man labouring at the bottom of the margin. As the page has been cut down some point after the manuscript was made, we can only guess what activity he might be up to.

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Detail of marginalia, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The zodiac symbol for May is Gemini, represented by a pair of human twins. In Additional MS 36684, the twins are — as was typical — partially nude, their lower halves modestly covered by a large red shield marked by a white bird (perhaps a pelican?). They embrace congenially — everyone is in a good mood in May, when the weather is nice!

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Gemini, Add MS 36684, f. 6r

Don’t forget that you can digitally flip through all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. See you back here on 1 June for more fun!

Taylor McCall
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval 

29 April 2017

The end of the world as we know it

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You never know when the end of the world is going to happen, and so here at the British Library we've been in a race against time to digitise our Apocalypse manuscripts, before it's too late! Here is a selection of images from newly digitised manuscripts, so everyone knows what to expect when it happens.

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Angels with trumpets and incense from a picture-book of the Life of St John and the Apocalypse, Northern France or Low Countries, c. 1400, Add MS 38121, f. 11v

Let’s start off with some optimistic scenarios. In the beginning it is all visions of heaven, with starry skies, cute lambs and choirs of angels.


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John the Evangelist sees the Heavenly Choir worshipping the Lamb and the four Evangelists’ symbols, from an Apocalypse with commentary by Berengaudus, in parallel Latin and French, France (Normandy), c. 1320–1330, Add MS 17333, f. 24v

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The vision of Heaven (Revelation IV 2–8), from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 7r

But then the trumpets sound.

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The Third Trumpet, a burning star falls from Heaven; the Fourth Trumpet: the sun and moon are darkened from the Huth Apocalypse, Add MS 38118, f. 15r

And its not long before things start to get nasty. There are murders and earthquakes.

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The earthquake, from Add MS 17333, f. 8r

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The earthquake from an Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, England or France, early 14th century, Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 41r

Fire rains down on the earth as Judgement Day approaches.

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Fire raining on the earth from the Apocalypse in French prose with a prologue by Gilbert de la Porree, Lorraine, 1275–1325, Harley MS 4972, f. 14v

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The lake of fire and brimstone and the Judgement from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

Pretty soon there are weird and nasty beasts everywhere, even in the text, and all hell breaks loose, literally.

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Zoomorphic initial from a Commentary on the Apocalypse by Haimo of Halberstad, from the area that is now Belgium (Tournai?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 25312, f. 55v

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The dragon wages war on humans (Revelation XII: 17), Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 31r

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The beasts of the Apocalypse attack the people, from an Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French, France, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 17399, f. 22v 

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A dragon and a beast with 7 heads, Add MS 38121, f. 23v

And then there is the pale horseman and the wicked woman of Babylon.

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The pale horseman of the Apocalypse, Add MS 22493, f. 3v 

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The wicked woman seated on the beast, from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French with a paraphrase in Middle English prose, Add MS 18633, f. 35v

Finally, kings and others in power don’t seem to come out of this too well!

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The birds, summoned by the angel in the sun, attacking and eating the flesh of kings and powerful men, Lorraine (Metz or Verdun), 4th quarter of 13th century, Add MS 22493, f 4v

So dear readers, don’t say we didn’t warn you ! If you don’t believe us and want to see it all for yourself, here is a list of our recently-digitised Apocalypse manuscripts:

Add MS 17333, Apocalypse in parallel Latin and French. 

Add MS 17399, Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French  

Add MS 18633, Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose  

Add MS 19896, Apocalypse Picture Book with Latin text 

Add MS 22493, Apocalypse, fragment with commentary by Berengaudus 

Add MS 25312, Commentary on the Apocalypse in Latin by Haimo of Halberstad, 

Add MS 35166, Apocalypse in Latin with commentary 

Add MS 38118, The Huth Apocalypse, in French prose with gloss 

Add MS 38121, Picture Book of the life of St John and the Apocalypse 

Harley MS 874, Apocalypse in Middle English 

Harley MS 4972, Apocalypse in French, Prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl 

Royal MS 2 D XIII, Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French 

And old ‘favourites’ that have been on our Digitised Manuscripts website for some time and have featured in previous blog posts are:

 Add MS 11695, The Silos Apocalypse 

Add MS 15243, Apocalypse in German 

Add MS 38842, Apocalypse with commentary in French prose (fragment)

Add MS 42555, The Abingdon Apocalypse 

Royal MS 15 D II, The Welles Apocalypse 

Royal MS 19 B XV, 'The Queen Mary Apocalypse' 

Yates Thompson MS 10, Apocalypse in French

Chantry Westwell

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