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161 posts categorized "Royal"

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.


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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03 December 2017

Renaissance illumination at the Louvre

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Two Renaissance manuscripts from the British Library collections are currently on loan to the Louvre in Paris, where they are displayed in an exhibition devoted to King François I of France (r. 1515–1547) as a collector of Netherlandish art.


François I pictured in a medallion above Julius Caesar, with his initials FM, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 3r

François I was a great patron of the arts, fostering the ideals of the Renaissance and humanism in France during his reign and sponsoring artists, musicians and craftsmen. He is well-known for his love for — and acquisition of — things Italian, but his extensive purchases of tapestries, objets d’art, paintings and miniatures show that his taste extended to artworks in the Netherlandish style, equally important at this period. Bringing together many of these objects, the Louvre's exhibition focuses on the influence of Netherlandish artists in France in the first half of the 16th century and the king's patronage. Lesser-known Netherlandish artists brought to the fore include Godefroy le Batave, Jean Clouet and Noël Bellemare, who worked in the ateliers that produced our two manuscript treasures on show in the exhibition.

Les Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique

The first is a manuscript that was made specifically for François by his former preceptor and almoner, the Franciscan friar, François Desmoulins de Rochefort (d. 1526).


A miniature of Caesar and his horse in the midst of a battle, with the dialogue between him (in blue) and François (‘Le Roy’, in red) beneath, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 36v

In a famous victory, François I defeated the Swiss pikemen at Marignan in 1515. This work draws parallels between the Swiss campaigns of the French king and those of Julius Caesar in his ‘Gallic wars’, taking the form of conversations between the two conquerors.


The Swiss villages burning, with soldiers and peasants dancing, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 9v 

After the death of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1519, François I’s candidacy for this crown was strongly promoted by those around him. The Harley manuscript is the first of a series of three volumes made with this aim, perhaps commissioned by his mother, Louise of Savoie, for her ‘petit cesar’ from the author, François Desmoulins. The Dutch astronomer and theologian, Albert Pigghe (b. c. 1490, d. 1542), supervised the creation of the maps and may also have been the scribe. The other two volumes survive as Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS fr. 13429 and Chantilly, Musee Conde, MS 764/1139. The miniatures were painted by Godefroy de Batave, a Dutch artist trained in Antwerp who worked under his supervision. The portrait medallions on f. 3r and also those in the BnF volume have been attributed to Jean Clouet, who painted the famous portrait of François I that is also in the exhibition.

François I’s hopes of winning the crown of the Holy Roman Empire were dashed when his rival, Charles V, was elected emperor in 1519. Further humiliation followed with his defeat at the hands of Charles at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, and he went so far as to form an alliance with the Turkish emperor, the fearsome Suleiman the Magnificent. This image in a manuscript made thirty or more years later glorifies the supposed triumphs of Charles V over his enemies, including François and Suleiman.


A portrait of François I from after his death (third from left) in a miniature of a scene from the Triumphs of Emperor Charles V: the Emperor enthroned among his enemies, including Suleiman the Magnificent and Pope Clement VII, c. 1556–c. 1575: Additional MS 33733, f. 5r

Book of Hours attributed to the Bellemare group


The Visitation, with St Anne and the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 32v

The second British Library manuscript on loan to the Louvre is an exquisite Book of Hours with fifteen full page miniatures, each embellished with a gold Italianate tabernacle frame. A group of illuminators who supplied decorated Books of Hours to the court of France at this time, known as the Bellemare Group after the artist Noël Bellemare, used a style reminiscent of the Antwerp Mannerists, characterised by brilliant, rather unnatural colours.


David making a sacrifice, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 69v

Although this work is not directly associated with François I, it is a further example of the influence of Netherlandish style on the artworks produced within his court circles.


John the Evangelist pointing to the Vision of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 13r

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to François Ier et l’Art des Pays-Bas, on at the Musee du Louvre until 15 January 2018.


Chantry Westwell

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27 October 2017

Collaborative doctoral research at the British Library: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

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The British Library is advertising a new round of opportunities for Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships. We are delighted to announce that one of the specially selected research themes is Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lansdowne MS 94%2c f. 30

Queen Elizabeth I’s draft answer to the Lords’ petition that she marry, 10 April 1563: British Library, Lansdowne MS 94, f. 30

The CDP studentship will run for three years from October 2018 to September 2021. During this time we will be preparing for an exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, which will open in the autumn of 2020, giving the award-holder the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s public programmes as well as working on their doctoral thesis. Full details of our research theme for this partnership, and some suggested areas of study and research questions, can be found here.

Cotton Caligula C i%2c f. 94v

Autograph letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Queen Elizabeth I, in French, announcing her arrival in England, 17 May 1568: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

The selected university partner will receive an AHRC training grant to cover the student’s fees and stipend, including a Research Training Support Grant and Student Development Funding (standard RCUK eligibility criteria apply). The Library will provide the students with staff-level access to the collections, expertise and facilities of the Library, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year. The student will also benefit from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated to the CDP scheme.

So, if you are based in a UK Higher Education Institution and would like to co-supervise an AHRC-funded doctoral student on this research theme, or one of the other themes selected for next year, apply by 24 November 2017. For any queries about how to apply or to find out more about the Library CDP programme, please email


Andrea Clarke (Lead Curator of Medieval & Early Modern Manuscripts)

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22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

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The House of Tudor reigned over England for almost a century and a quarter, and is renowned for its displays of indulgence. King Henry VIII (1509–1547) is especially associated with having led a luxurious and decadent lifestyle: he is thought to have squandered a large part of the treasure amassed by his father, King Henry VII (1485–1509), on banquets and festivities. Even so, their account books show that the Tudor kings, including Henry VIII, were very much interested in book-keeping, and did not simply throw money around at will. Such behaviour was thought to have a corrupting effect — it was portrayed as a shower of coins in a near-contemporary prayer-book commissioned by William of Hastings (d. 1483), Master of the Royal Mint.

Image 1 - Tudor Court

A shower of coins in the borders of a prayer to the Three Kings, in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 43r

The British Library has recently digitised four account books of Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. These two kings clearly kept track of their income and expenses by inspecting their account books. This is indicated by the fact that three of the account books, (partially) written by John Heron (1470–1522), Treasurer of the Chamber, include the kings’ signatures at the end of several of their entries.

Image 2 - Tudor Court

The signature of King Henry VII, 1499–1505: Add MS 21480, f. 10v

Image 3 - Tudor Court

The signature of King Henry VIII, 1509–1518: Add MS 21481, f. 4v

The household books give us an insight into the life and activities at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. They contain records with payments for many types of labourer and artisan: gardeners, such as the ‘moletaker’; cooks, such as the ‘Frenche coke’ employed by Henry VIII; tailors, such as the ‘yeman of the robes’ and the ‘fethermaker’; falconers; trumpeters; crossbow makers and maintainers, known as the ‘grome of the crosbows’; clockmakers, such as Nicholas Kratzer, a German astronomer who was commissioned by Henry VIII to design an astronomical clock for Hampton Court; engravers, referred to as  the ‘graver of precious stones’; courtiers; soldiers; secretaries; ambassadors and other officials. They also document material goods, such as horses and greyhounds, as well as spiritual goods, such as alms and prayers.

One account book (Add MS 21481) contains a letter dated 23 January 1512 (ff. 347r–348v), in which Henry VIII orders John Heron to make payments to Gilbert Talbot (1452–1517), Lord Deputy of Calais, and Edward Poynings (1459–1521), military commander and diplomat, for ‘certain men of arms and houses in Flanders for our war’s purpose’ [‘certain men of armes and hooysse in fflaunders for oure werres use’] in preparation for a campaign against France. But the books also give insight into the kings' personal lives. For example, we can see that Henry VIII, several years after the annulment of his marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was still making payments directly to her and her treasurer Wymond Carewe, for ‘her officers and certain gentlewomen an gentlemen’ [‘her Officers and certeyn gentilwomen and gentilwomen’]. 

Image 4 - Tudor Court

An entry for a payment to Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 70v

Image 5 - Tudor Court

An entry for a payment to Wymond Carewe for the household of Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 63r

You can explore the world of the Tudor court for yourself by viewing the following household books online:

King Henry VII’s household book for the years 1499-1505

King Henry VII's household book for the years 1502-1505

King Henry VIII’s household book for the years 1509-1518

King Henry VIII's household book for the years 1543-1544


Clarck Drieshen

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05 January 2017

A Lasting Impression

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Edward the Confessor, who died on 5 January 1066, may have been the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England, but he is also the first English king whose seal, in wax, survives to the present day. An example is found attached to British Library Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5. A fragile disc of yellow wax measuring 78 mm in diameter, it has been damaged at the edges, but the seated figure of the king can still be discerned in the centre of the disc.

Writ of Edward the Confessor with seal: Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5, England, 2nd half of 11th century

On the front of the seal, Edward is depicted sitting on a throne, holding an orb in one hand and what may be a staff of office topped with a cross in the other. On the reverse, Edward is also shown seated, although this time he holds an oblong shape, which may be another staff in one hand. In the other, he holds what may be a sword at an angle.

Lfc_ch_xxi_5_f1 seals both sides
Detail of the verso and recto of the seal attached to Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5

The seal is attached to a writ with the following text, in which Edward purportedly instructed ‘my bishops and my earls and my reeves and all my thegns in the shires in which Archbishop Stigand and the community at Christ Church have land’ to respect the rights, jurisdiction and property of the community, ‘because I have given these rights for the eternal salvation of my soul, as King Cnut did previously. And I will not tolerate that any man breach this, by my friendship’ (full text and translation available at the Electronic Sawyer). As can be seen however from the different colours of ink, however, the text was altered on at least one occasion.

Although Edward’s seal is the first to survive in contemporary wax impressions, Edward was hardly the first Anglo-Saxon or even Anglo-Saxon royal to have a seal matrix. (A matrix is the term for the imprinting device or mould used to create a seal.) Possibly the earliest surviving seal matrix from England is a late 7th or early 8th-century ring, now in Norwich Castle Museum. The ring is inscribed with the woman’s name ‘Balde hildis’. One famous Bathild or Balthild was sold as a slave and eventually married the Frankish king Clovis II (although it is not clear if she was the Bathild to whom the ring refers). By the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, King Coenwulf of Mercia’s name was on a lead bulla from which impressions could be made, and which is now in the British Museum

Detatched Seal XXXVIII 5 (1) Contrast
Lead bull of Pope Zacharias: Detached Seal xxxviii 5, Italy (?), c. 741–52

The tradition of using seals with documents stretches all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, but these early Anglo-Saxon seal matrices may have been inspired by contemporary continental precedents, particularly papal seals. For example, British Library Detached Seal XXXVIII 5 is a lead bull of Pope Zacharias from between 741 and 752. There is no record of when this particular bull arrived in England, but some scholars have suggested it (or one like it) was in England by the late 8th century, because it may have inspired the design of a penny of Offa. Correspondence with continental figures may have required as well as inspired the use of seals in England, since some leaders insisted on them. In the 860s, Pope Nicholas complained that letters which were being sent to him without seals. It may not be a coincidence that a seal of Æthilwald, bishop of Dummoc had a seal matrix by the mid 9th century, now preserved in the British Museum

By the time Edward the Confessor’s writ for Stigand and the church at Canterbury was being sealed, there was a long tradition of using seals in England among both kings and nobles, even though few matrices and fewer impressions survive to the present day. Although Hollywood films frequently portray wax seals being used to close folded letters, to be broken before reading the letter’s contents, the writ of Edward the Confessor shows that Anglo-Saxon seals were frequently attached to a strip of parchment cut from the end of a document, to be preserved as an outward mark of authority. Already in the late 9th century, the Old English adaptation of Augustine’s Soliloquies, traditionally attributed to King Alfred or his court, expected its audience to understand that a lord’s insegel (seal) conveyed authority and identity: ‘Suppose a letter with a seal from your lord came to you; can you say you cannot understand him by that, or recognise his will in it?’

Resolution of a property dispute at a shire-moot, with detail of the sentence mentioning the seal: Cotton Augustus II 15, England, 990–992

In other cases, messengers may have carried a lord’s seal with them, with or without an attached document. A document from between 990 and 992 claims that Edward’s father, Æthelred the Unready, sent his ‘insegel’ (seal) to a shire meeting ‘by means of Abbot Ælfhere of Bath and greeted all the councillors that were summoned there… and bade and commanded that they should reconcile Wynflæd and Leofwine’, two people engaged in a property dispute. It sounds like Æthelred gave Ælfhere his seal and instructions, without necessarily attaching the seal to a document.  Meanwhile, the document in which this is recorded uses a chirograph, not a seal as means of verifying its duplicate.

Seals could be used to authorise people, as well as documents or verbal instructions. A pact between Æthelred and Duke Richard of Normandy, negotiated with help from the pope, noted that ‘Richard is to receive none of the king’s men, nor of his enemies, nor the king any of his, without his seal’, as part of an joint agreement not to harbour any Vikings. 

Spurious writ with seal of Edward: Sloane Charter XXXIV 1, England (Westminster), late 11th century

Documents with seals in general, and Edward’s seals in particular, became increasingly important after the Norman Conquest, as the administrators of Domesday surveys tried to reconstruct who had what tempore Eadwardi regis—in the time of King Edward. One of the forms of proof they would accept was a writ with Edward’s seal on it, and Domesday Book records many more sealed writs of Edward than survive today. Of course, not all these documents or seals were necessarily genuine. Even the 11th-century writ in favour of Canterbury with the seal features a different ink and possibly a different, later scribe in the second part of the text, which may have been altered at some point after Edward’s death. Attempts to forge documents and seals in the name of Edward the Confessor continued well into the post-Conquest period: these elaborate and enormous seals are remarkable for how different they look from the small, yellow seal attached to the 11th-century writ. Although the later forgeries are more elaborate, however, the earliest surviving royal seal from England still makes a lasting impression (pun intended). 

Alison Hudson

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05 November 2016

Showing Off Sailing Ships: The Anthony Roll

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When King Henry VIII (1509–1547) wasn’t looking for a new wife or dissolving a monastery, he was commissioning a new ship. He undertook a massive expansion of the Tudor navy. Anthony Anthony, a military administrator, set about to document and illustrate this, and presented Henry with three splendid rolls in 1546, now available in full through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.


The Antelope, launched in 1546: Add MS 22047.

The British Library holds the second of Anthony’s rolls, Add MS 22047, ‘The second Rolle declaryng the Nombre of the Kynges Maiestys owne Galliasses’. Galleasses were heavily armed three-masted galleys. The most unusual vessel shown on this roll is the Galley Subtle, highly decorated and built by shipwrights imported from Italy.


The Galley Subtle, the centrepiece of the three rolls: Add MS 22047.

When they were created, the rolls were a fine display of the latest naval technology. They show not only the ships, but name their crews and list their armaments (the text is available on Wikisource, or printed with a commentary). These were of central interest to Anthony, who worked in the ordnance office in the Tower of London. The rolls are a key source for the Tudor navy: after the sunken Mary Rose was salvaged in 1982, the 16th-century depiction was enormously useful in making sense of the archaeological evidence.


The Lyon and The Dragon: Add MS 22047.

The other two rolls show the navy’s warships, pinnaces and ‘roo baergys’ (row barges). King Charles II (1660–1685) gave them to Samuel Pepys, who had them cut up and bound into a volume, now in the Pepys Library in Magdalene College, Cambridge. Fortunately, the British Library’s roll is still in its original format.

Andrew Dunning

20 July 2016

Off With His Head

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As a manuscript curator, one often gets asked, what can we achieve by studying old handwriting? Surely every important document in the British Library's collections has already been published. Surely every manuscript has yielded every clue as to why it was written, and who may have consulted it. 

Sometimes when we do explain what our job entails, people still raise a quizzical eyebrow. Old handwriting is hard to read, isn't it? Am I a graphologist (or whatever it is you call them)? Is it ever possible to gain psychological insight into the people who wrote our documents?

Vesp F XIII, f 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551 (Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273)

The text I am highlighting here goes some way to answering some of those questions. I came across it when I was cataloguing the Cotton manuscripts, one of the foundation collections of the British Museum (and hence the British Library), and home to some of our finest literary and historical treasures: Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels, to name just three. The document in question is bound with other state papers, and I recognised the handwriting immediately: it is in the distinctive hand of the boy-king, Edward VI of England (reigned 1547–53), the son of Henry VIII. The title, written at the top in Edward's schoolboy hand, explains its purpose: 'Certain points of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my council'. The date given is 18 January 1551, that is, January 1552 according to the modern calendar.

What we have here is a memorandum for the meeting of the king's council. I guess it's not dissimilar to the agenda that would have been produced for the first Cabinet meeting of Britain's new Prime Minister, except that some of its items — one of them, in particular — are perhaps slightly more bloodthirsty than we are usually used to. In fact, many of the nine items listed by King Edward for discussion have a certain modern resonance. They deal, for example, with the national debt ('The conclusion for the payment of our debts in February next coming') and foreign trade ('The matter for the steel yard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subjects.')

Below is a full transcription of this memorandum. It is the third item on the list that really made me raise my own eyebrows. It reads, in modern English:

'The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment and execution according to the laws, example may be showed to others.'

Vesp F XIII, f 273 detail

Detail of item 3 of Edward VI's memorandum

Now, Somerset's fate remains highly controversial. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was the brother of King Edward's mother, Queen Jane Seymour (the 3rd wife of Henry VIII), and he had been the lord protector at the start of Edward's reign. He fell from grace after rebellions had taken place against his governance of the kingdom, and he was stripped of the protectorship in January 1550. Then, in 1551 Somerset was accused of plotting against the life of the duke of Northumberland; he was arrested on a charge of committing high treason on 16 October 1551, shortly after dining with the king.

Somerset's trial took place on 1 December, at which he argued skilfully against the charges laid against him. He was acquitted of high treason, but convicted of bringing together men for a riot. It was widely expected that Somerset's life would be spared, but on 19 January 1552 (the day after Edward wrote his memorandum), the king and council decided to proceed with the execution. Edward Seymour was taken to Tower Hill on the morning of 22 January and beheaded. Certain of his fellow conspirators were executed on 26 February, but others survived with their lives.

Add MS 88991

A prayer book that once belonged to the duke of Somerset (Add MS 88991), featured in a previous blogpost

The eagle-eyed among you may have realised that, as originally written, King Edward's memorandum did not deal directly with Somerset. As first written, the third item read, 'The matter for the duke of Somerset's confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment example may be showed to others.' Edward VI made three substantial changes to this passage. First, he changed the subject from the duke of Somerset's confederates alone to the duke of Somerset AND his confederates; next, he commanded that they be punished AND executed; and thirdly, lending his statement a little gravitas, he ordered that this be carried out according to the laws.

This brings us back to the handwriting of the document under scrutiny. Did Edward change his mind while he was drafting the agenda for his council? Was he really determined to proceed with the execution of his uncle, or was there somebody standing at his shoulder, persuading him to act 'according to the laws'? It's slightly unnerving to think that a 14-year-old boy wielded absolute power in England at this time, and at the royal whim one of his own relatives could be sent to the scaffold. You may sniff, of course, but this is just one of the ways that reading an original manuscript can transform our understanding of the past.

London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551.

  1. The conclusion for the payment of our dettis in February next coming.
  2. The matter for the stiliard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subiectis.
  3. The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as aparteineth to our surety and quietnes of our realme, that by there punishement and execution according to the laws example may be shewed to others.
  4. The resolution for the bishops that be nominated.
  5. Many of our ambassadours diettes to be sent them forthwith.
  6. Dispaching our commissioners to Guisnes to see the state thereof.
  7. Taking some order to the Londoners that they that come to our parliament may not be holly discouraged, empourished or woried with their attendawnce, wich order can not be well taken (as me thinketh) without punishing th'offendours.
  8. The matter for thexchaung to be well wayed and considerid.
  9. The bishop of Durhams matters to be executid according to our laws.


Julian Harrison


04 April 2016

Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Who's Your Daddy?

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Isidore of Seville died on this day in 636. Isidore, who was born in 560, was the bishop of Seville from about 600 to his death. He is better known, however, as an author than as an administrator. His most famous work is the Etymologies, a vast reference work, which functioned as an etymological encyclopaedia. The text was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages. It represents Isidore’s ambitious attempts to condense a huge body of knowledge into a single work.


Hedgehogs feed their young from a Bestiary attached to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, c 1200-c 1210, Northern or Central England, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v

As well as containing information on a range of subjects, like mathematics, canon law, philosophy, the human body, geography, ship-building, weights and measures and rhetoric, it also has some excellent (and highly dubious) zoological information. According to Isidore, hedgehogs feed their young by visiting vines, plucking the grapes from the plant and rolling over them in order to impale them on their spines. In the image above we can see the hedgehog doing a sterling impression of a 1970s canapé tray.


Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 30r

Given its ambitious scope, many manuscripts of the work contain a complex extra-textual apparatus to help readers navigate the work. You can see an example of this apparatus – in this case a table of contents – in a ninth century copy of the work, below. (This is not the only ninth century copy held by the library: Harley MS 3941 has also been digitised.) It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II nominated Isidore to be the patron saint of the internet. Isidore is the perfect candidate. Like the internet, his Etymologies contains a large body of information which requires a complex searching mechanism to help you find information about medicine or law or just cool stuff about hedgehogs. 


Table of contents, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Northern France, 9th century, Harley MS 2686, f. 5r

A particularly striking example of a 'search function' in one copy of the work-- an eleventh-century manuscript (Royal MS 6 C I), probably copied at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury-- is the affinity diagrams, laying out the relationships within members of a family. Who exactly is your second cousin twice removed? Fortunately for the reader, a simple chart should sort out the confusion. 'The grandfather of my paternal uncle,' it reads across one line, 'is my propatruus, and I am to him the niece or nephew of his son or daughter'. Relationships are labelled with both the terms for the relative and the term by which he or she would refer to the reader: both grandfather and grandson, both uncle and nephew (or niece!). Just as the world has been diagrammed, so have the intricacies of the family tree.


Chart of familial affinities, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 78r

The Etymologies is also famous for its sometimes quirky explanations of the history of words. In some cases, when Isidore takes the word apart based on what it sounds like, the explanation that results can be extremely engaging, if not necessarily true. The Latin word for 'beggar' (mendicus) is now believed to derive from an earlier word meaning 'deformity' or 'lack'.  Isidore, however, speculates a much more charming story, of a 'custom among the ancients' to 'close the hungry mouth and extend a hand, as if speaking with the hand' (manu dicere).


Etymologies of words beginning with F and G; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 10, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 82r

In other cases, Isidore’s etymologies, while colourful, are spot-on. The one he gives for the words Fornicarius and Fornicatrix (male and female prostitute) explains that these terms come from the Latin word for 'arch' (fornix), and refers to the architecture of ancient brothels. Prostitutes were understood to lie under such arches while practising their trade. This is the same explanation for the word 'fornicate' offered in the Oxford English Dictionary today!


T-O map of the world, with east at the top, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 108v

Isidore's work had an immense influence on later medieval thinkers across Europe. For example, Isidore was the first to explain the layout of the continents in what would become the classic medieval schema, the T-O map. The world is round, with Jerusalem its spiritual as well as geographical centre, standing at the convergence between the three known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

Harley 3099 1v
Opening page from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Low Countries (Munsterbilsen), c. 1130-1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 1v

Isidore's influence is also suggested by the number of copies of the Etymologies which survive, from every century of the medieval period, across Europe, copied by diverse scribes. We now have no less than ten manuscripts of Isidore's Etymologies available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. As well as those listed above, you can also see Harley MS 3099, which was, somewhat unusually, copied by eight female scribes (see image above). They were Benedictine nuns in the Abbey of Munsterbilsen near Maastricht (now Belgium), working in the period 1130-1174.


Excerpt from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Northern France, late 8th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 37r

The earliest digitised copy is Cotton Caligula A XV  which dates from the 2nd half of the 8th century and was made in Northern France. Alongside this, you can see a late 11th-century version (Royal MS 6 C I), an early 12th-century copy (Harley MS 2660), made in the Rhineland , a mid 13th-century copy, Harley MS 6  and our youngest digitised manuscript, which is a mere five centuries old Harley MS 3035.

- Nicole Eddy, updated by Mary Wellesley