Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

22 September 2020

Great medieval bake off

With the return of the Great British Bake Off to our screens, it’s the perfect time to crack out the baking skills! We’ve explored before how baking skills were highly valued in the Middle Ages, so this time we thought we’d put some medieval recipes to the test. Using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library, amateur bakers from the BLMedieval team are battling it out to be crowned the Medieval Bake Off Champion. Who will triumph?

On your marks, get set, bake!

A feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals
A feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 236r

Ellie's recipe: sambocade

Recipe for sambocade in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for sambocade from Add MS 5016, membrane 2d (image 'f. 10v')

Take and make a crust in a trap, and take cruddes and wryng out þe wheyze, and drawe hem þurgh a straynour, and put in þe straynour crustes. Do þerto sugar the þridde part and somdel whyte of ayren, and shake þerin blomes of elren, and bake it up with eurose, and messe it forth.

Take and make a crust in a dish and take curds and wring out the whey and draw them through a strainer and put in the crust. Add a third part of sugar and some egg whites and shake in elderflowers and bake it up with rose water and serve it up.

Named after the Latin for the common elder tree (sambucus nigra), sambocade is a curd tart flavoured with elderflowers. I mixed 550g curd cheese (I used a Polish variety called twaróg) with 1/3 of a cup of unrefined demerara sugar, 3 egg whites, the flowers from 5 heads of fresh elderflowers (picked when they were in season in May), and a dash of rosewater. I also departed from the recipe by adding a dash of elderflower cordial. I made a shortcrust pastry shell in a 9-inch tart dish, blind-baked it at 160° for 10 minutes in a fan oven, then added the filling and baked it for about 50 minutes. By then, the tart was golden on top and the filling had set to a springy consistency which rippled satisfyingly when I tapped it with the back of a spoon.

I 'messed it forth' and was surprised to find that the filling tastes powerfully floral, with the elderflower and rose combining into a glorious bouquet of flavour. The curd is rich and slightly tangy with a crumbly and juicy texture, contrasting with the crisp pastry. It reminds me of Yorkshire curd tarts, fragrant hedgerows and long summer days in the countryside.

Photo of a slice of sambocade
A slice of sambocade, photo by Eleanor Jackson

Clarck’s recipe: comadre

Comadre recipe in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for comradre from Harley MS 1605/3, f. 117r

Take figus reysingus, pyke hem clene, and scalde hem in wyne, and grynde hem smal. Cast sugur in þo self wyne, and founde hem to gedre, and drawe hit up þorow a straynour, and alye up þi frute þerwyt. Take peres and apples, pare hem, take þe best and grynde small, and do þerto. Set a potte on þe fyre, with oyle, and cast al þis þerin, and styre hyt and hepe hit wel fro brennyng. Wen hit his ifoundede, cast þerto poudur gynger, canel, galinga, clowes hole, and maces hole. Cast þerto pines a lytel fryede in oyle, and salt. Wen hit is ifryede, take hit up anon, and do hit in a vessel, and let hit cole, wene hit is colde kerve hit oute with a kynne [sic] on smale peces, as myche as þi lytel fyngur, and close hit in gode paste, and fry hem in oyle harde, and serve hem forth.

Take figs and raisins, pick them clean, scald them in wine, and grind them small. Add sugar to the same wine and mix them together. Push it [the wine] through a strainer and mix your fruit with it. Take pears and apples, peel them, take the best pieces and grind them small. Set a pot with oil on the fire and put everything in it, stir it, and prevent it from burning. When it is mixed, add ginger powder, cinnamon, galingale, whole cloves, and whole nutmeg seeds. Add pine nuts briefly fried in oil and salt. When it is fried, take it out and put it in a vessel and let it cool. When it is cold, cut out with a knife small pieces that are the size of your little finger. Roll the pieces in good pastry, fry them hard in oil, and serve them forth.

Comadre is a pastry filling that, as its possible Latin source comedere (to devour) suggests, is gobble-worthy indeed. After cutting up and boiling about half a kilo of figs and raisins in red wine with a few teaspoons of sugar, I mashed the figs and raisins up with peeled and cored apples and pears (5 of each). I left the fruit mixture to simmer in an open pan for about 20 minutes while stirring and adding the required spices —using galangal paste for ‘galinga’— and fried and salted pine nuts to my own liking. After leaving the filling in the fridge for a couple of hours, I took finger-sized portions and wrapped them in dairy-free pastry dough. Instead of frying the pastries in oil, I baked them in the oven for about 15 minutes at 220°C. Rich in flavour and with a long and refreshing aftertaste, comadre, also known as ‘comedie’, put a smile to my face.

Photo of a bowl of comadre
A bowl of comadre, photo by Clarck Drieshen

Calum’s recipe: crispis

Crispis recipe in a medieval manscript
Recipe for crispis from Harley MS 1605/3, f. 113r

Take floure of payndemayne and medle hyt with wyte of eyren. Set wyte gres on þo fyre in a chaufer and do þi batur þerin coyntely with þo fyngurus, and bake hyt a lytel. If þow wolt colour hyt with alkenet ifoundede. take hem up, and cast on sugur, and serve hyt forth.

Take flour of pandemain (a fine white bread) and mix it with egg white. Put white grease (fat or lard) in a pan and add the batter carefully with your fingers and bake it a little. If you wish, colour it with alkenet (a herb used as a red colorant). Take them out, sprinkle with sugar and serve it up.

The recipe for crispis (the Middle English word for ‘curly’ or ‘wrinkled’) from the Forme of Cury is one of the simplest in the collection, only requiring a few ingredients to make. Perhaps this is the reason why versions of the dish are common to almost all major recipe collections that survive from the late medieval period. The recipe appears to describe a type of battered fritter – a cross between a pancake and doughnut, but without a filling.

For my interpretation of the recipe, I whisked three egg whites together with a small amount of water and about two tablespoons of honey. Then I took 50g of plain flour, made a well in the top and folded in the wet ingredients to create the batter. The mixture fell apart rather quickly when I added it to the oil, so I incorporated more flour to thicken. The batter eventually came together and gained a smooth consistency. I dropped a tablespoon of the mix into a pan of oil about 2 inches deep and fried it on a medium heat, flipping it over so that both sides would colour equally. The cooking time was short, no more than 3 minutes. The edges of the fritters crimped as they puffed up, so that they resembled a kind of Yorkshire pudding. I topped the finished plate of crispis with a few dollops of honey and a thick dusting of icing sugar. The result was a delicious bite-size snack with a soft crumb and a light texture that was not overly sweet, but dangerously moreish!

Photo of a plate of crispis
A plate of crispis, photo by Calum Cockburn

In the absence of Paul and Prue, we asked the public to decide who will be the winner of Great Medieval Bake Off. Voting via our online poll has now closed and we can confirm that the winner is Ellie with her delicious sambocade! Her prize: a medieval handshake and a copy of the Library's renowned unicorn cookbook. Thanks to all who took part!

And if this blogpost has whetted your appetite, take a look at the delicious line-up of digital events celebrating, exploring and debating food as part of the British Library’s food season (14 September-20 October 2020).

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

21 September 2020

All about ancient camels

Camels are an iconic part of the Egyptian landscape. Called the ships of the desert for their endurance and ability to cope with the heat and lack of water, they are still used for transportation and as a tourist attraction in the shadows of the pyramids.

An image from a medieval bestiary of a man riding a camel

A man riding a camel in a medieval bestiary (England, possibly Rochester, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 38v (detail)

But has this always been the case? Despite their archaeologically documented presence in North Africa for thousands of years, camels are hardly ever named in Egyptian documents of the Pharaonic period. They are first mentioned as animals used to transport goods and people in much later Greek documents.

One of the first sources to mention how camels were used is a papyrus in the British Library's collection, dating from around 2,280 years ago. This fragmentary piece comes from a Greek account-book, recording the costs of a private businessman who was renting out his camels. Although the papyrus is damaged, it shows that this man may have had at least 60 camels in his possession, and that he regularly rented them to local farmers, whose names are recorded in the document. Two of them, Onnophris and Eudemos, may have been regular customers as their names were recorded on consecutive days, hiring 5, 6 or as many as 10–12 camels at a time.

Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent

Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent (Egypt, Philadelphia, meris of Herakleides, 263–229BC): Papyrus 2692 (detail)

Unfortunately, the text does not record what these people used the camels for, but it is interesting to note that these early documents tend to mention the existence of camel agents renting out the animals, rather than camels owned by individuals. Could this be a sign that they were too expensive to own and cheaper to rent?

The camel in a medieval bestiary

The camel in a medieval bestiary (England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 24r (detail)

Whatever the truth, this situation seems to have changed significantly within a couple of centuries. From the first and second centuries AD — about 1,800–1,900 years ago — there are far more papyri mentioning camels. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they were kept and used.

Apart from agents having more camels for rent, we find individuals keeping one or two of them for their own use. In a report to the local police from AD 175, the priests of a temple complained that out of their four camels, a nice white female had been stolen, and they asked the authorities to help them get it back.

Fragment of a petition reporting the theft of a camel

Fragment of a petition to the local authorities reporting the theft of a white female camel (Pelusion, Egypt, c. AD 175): Papyrus 363

In a letter from about 20 years later, we learn that the prefect of a province ordered two camels for his private use, which were then delivered to him.

A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect

A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect (Egypt, 3rd century AD): Papyrus 479

Besides these more institutional users, we find an increasing number of contracts attesting that other individuals had started to buy camels. It appears from these documents that camels were around 8 times more expensive than donkeys or mules. Female camels were especially valuable and were often sold with their foals for very high prices. For example, a contract from AD 177 records that a white female camel and two foals were sold for 900 drachmas, while at the same time one could buy a donkey for about 120–150 drachmas.

The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals

The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals for at least 900 drachmas (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, October AD 177/178/179): Papyrus 1100

Camels were relatively expensive. This must explain why some documents attest that people often purchased only a part of a camel. A contract from 1,850 years ago records that a woman with her three daughters bought one third of two camels from her own son for 400 drachmas. The document shows not only that the whole camel would have been very expensive (about 600 drachmas) but also how people shared camels between them.

Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels

Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels for a sum of 400 drachmas (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 11 October AD 166): Papyrus 333

It was not only the purchase price of the animal that made it so expensive. Once you owned a camel, you had to register it with the local authorities and pay tax for it, which was higher than the amount charged for other animals. This may explain why in AD 163 Harpagathes was so quick to report to the council that his two camels, registered the previous year, had been requisitioned by the governor to serve in his caravan, so Harpagathes should not pay taxes for them.

A declaration of camels

Declaration of camels (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt. 29 January, AD 163): Papyrus 328

Apart from taxes, camels incurred other customs duties. Once they entered a city or a specific area, they had to pay a toll at the gates, which was higher than that issued to donkeys. As the surviving receipts attest, camels received a special permit on these occasions with a seal attached to the document.

A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues

A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues by Abous for exporting vetch on a camel, bearing a seal (Philopator alias Theogenous, meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 386C

The ancient documents preserved among the Greek papyri at the British Library may look dull at first sight, but they record precious information. They provide a fascinating picture about the increasing use of camels in Egypt over a period of some four to five centuries, as well as giving us an insight into the everyday life of the people who owned or rented them.


Peter Toth

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17 September 2020

Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online

The British Library is home to a world-class collection of manuscripts dating from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Over the past few years, we have been undertaking a major programme, known as Heritage Made Digital, with the intention of publishing online more treasures from the Library's collections. This includes approximately 600 of these Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. Today, we're very pleased to let you know that the first batch are available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site — a list is published below. We hope that this will help to promote new research into this invaluable resource, especially at a time when it hasn't been easy to access the original items in person.

A page from an Early Modern friendship album, featuring a painted portrait of Prince Charles alongside his coat of arms.

The portrait and arms of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), from the Friendship Album of Sir Thomas Cuming of Scotland: Add MS 17083, f. 4v

Publishing these manuscripts is the culmination of a huge amount of work by many teams across the Library. Each item has been assessed and prepared by our conservators prior to its digitisation. Our Imaging Studio has taken high-resolution photographs of every page, creating thousands of images in the process. The cataloguers (Amy, Jessica and Tim, with the assistance of other colleagues) have created new descriptions of each manuscript, and have made some intriguing discoveries and identifications along the way. The Heritage Made Digital team have overseen the whole process, and have been responsible in particular for checking the quality of the images and publishing them online.

The reverse of a letter from Elizabeth I to James VI, featuring the queen’s signature.

A letter from Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland, dated May 1590 and bearing her signature: Add MS 23240, f. 90

A quick glance at the list of the first thirty manuscripts that have gone online indicates the importance of this material. There are original letters of Queen Elizabeth I, King Charles I and James VI of Scotland, alongside the literary works of Robert Southwell and Sir John Harington, and Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland. One manuscript contains the plots of five Elizabethan plays; another is the friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming. Their contents relate to state affairs in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands, and to numerous aspects of political and social history.

A page from a collection of stage plots for 5 Early Modern plays, showing the directions for ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’.

The stage plot for the late 16th-century play, ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’, possibly performed by the Admiral’s Men: Add MS 10449, f. 1r

In 2021, some of these newly-digitised manuscripts will also feature in a major exhibition at the British Library, devoted to Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. This exhibition will focus on the intertwined relationship between these two queens, viewed through the manuscripts and printed books that are associated with them. More information about this exhibition will be announced in due course.

The opening page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, featuring a decorated border and initial with a coat of arms in the lower margin.

The prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Add MS 5140, f. 2r

More updates about this digitisation project will be published at regular intervals on this Blog, as well as the Library's Untold Lives and English and Drama Blogs. We hope that you enjoy exploring this initial selection of our Tudor and Stuart manuscripts, and that this whets your appetite for future additions. Please let us know via Twitter (@BLMedieval) how this impacts upon your own research, and whether it leads to new discoveries of your own.

The opening page from a manuscript featuring a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VIII, arranged in a table.

The opening of a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VII: Add MS 7099, f. 2r


Add MS 4107: State papers, 1598–1745

Add MS 4155: Political and diplomatic papers, 1587-1689

Add MS 5140: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Add MS 7099: Extracts from household books of Henry VII

Add MS 10422: Robert Southwell's poetry and prose

Add MS 10449: Stage plots of five Elizabethan plays

Add MS 11252: Letters of King Charles I etc

Add MS 12049: Sir John Harington's poetry and prose

Add MS 14028: Robert Beale's diplomatic papers

Add MS 15225: Religious poems and songs

Add MS 15891: Letters received by Sir Christopher Hatton

Add MS 17083: Friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming

Add MS 18920: Sir John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso

Add MS 19969: Letters and papers relating to Ferdinand of Boisschot

Add MS 21432: George Peele, Anglorum Feriæ

Add MS 22022: Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland

Add MS 22924: Household accounts of Queen Elizabeth I, 1590–92

Add MS 23240: Letters of Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland

Add MS 23241: Letter of King James VI of Scotland and others

Add MS 29431: State letters. 1472–1538


Update (21 September): we're delighted to have added another ten manuscripts to our original list:

Add MS 15736: Friendship album of George Andrew, Freiherr von Herberstein

Sloane MS 3188: John Dee's Conferences with Angels

Sloane MS 3191: John Dee's notes on ceremonial magic

Sloane MS 3651: William Bourne's mathematical manuscript dedicated to William Cecil

Sloane MS 3809: alchemical treatises and verses

Stowe MS 162: 'Walsingham's Table Book', 1588

Stowe MS 174: State papers of Sir Thomas Edmondes

Stowe MS 272: John Leslie, A treatise touching the right and title of Princess Marie, Queene of Scotland

Stowe MS 273: Robert Glover(?), An answer to John Leslie

Stowe MS 574: Miscellaneous collections from the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I


Andrea Clarke & Sandra Tuppen

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