Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

13 February 2020

In Praise of the Psalms

When we were cataloguing a Psalter manuscript as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France digitisation project, we identified a previously unrecognised copy of the text known as De laude psalmorum ('In praise of the Psalms'). This short Latin treatise explains why saying the Psalms was considered spiritually beneficial, and which Psalms were good for which purposes. It opens a window onto how medieval people understood one of the most important liturgical and devotional books of the Middle Ages, the Psalter.

A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen
A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen: Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

Harley MS 2928 was made in 12th-century Aquitaine (now in southern France). The main part of this book is a copy of the book of Psalms, with four now quite damaged miniatures, an exposition of Christian hymns, and a copy of part of the Gospel of John in the Old Occitan language. As was typical for Psalters in this period, a number of prayers and texts related to prayers have been included in the manuscript, including De laude psalmorum on ff. 192v-194r.

This text, which some scholars believe to be the work of Alcuin of York, was extremely popular in medieval Europe. The scholar Jonathan Black has identified 193 copies of De laude psalmorum, or of parts of it, from all over Europe and dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, including five at the British Library (Add MS 37768, Royal MS 5 E IX, Add MS 36929, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, and Royal MS 2 A XXII) (Jonathan Black, Mediaeval Studies (2002)). As this work was not an official part of church liturgy, but instead something to be undertaken because the reader him- or herself personally wanted to pray and praise God, its readers and copyists must have believed it to be particularly useful.

A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop
A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop: Harley MS 2928, f. 18r

In its full version, which is found in Harley MS 2928, De laude psalmorum offers eight reasons why the reader might wish to say the Psalms, and a selection of Psalms which are good for those purposes. For example, if you are afflicted by trouble and spiritual temptation, you are told to sing Psalms 21, 63 and 68 . Other reasons for singing the Psalms include the desire to praise God, the confession of sins, and the feeling of having been abandoned by God. Throughout the text, a great deal of importance is placed on the reader's inner state of mind, and his or her own wish to pray: each of the eight sections begins with the words 'si vis' ('if you wish') or similar, and the reader is told to sing the Psalms 'intima mente' ('in your innermost mind') or 'compuncto corde' ('with a goaded heart').

Harley MS 2928 is not an especially high-status manuscript. Folio 193 is a little misshapen, and there is a hole in it, through which – completely coincidentally – we can see the word 'gratiam' ('grace').

A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible
A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible: Harley MS 2928, f. 193r

But Harley MS 2928 is not the only manuscript digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France project which contains part of De laude psalmorum. Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, half of an 11th-century manuscript known as Ælfwine's Prayerbook, includes a brief list, written in Old English, of devotions to perform first thing in the morning, including singing Psalm 66 (see Kate Thomas, Notes & Queries (2012)). The author of this text comments:

'Ne mæg ænig mann on his agen geþeode þa geswinc 7 þara costnunga nearonessa, þe him onbecumað, Gode swa fulfremedlice areccan, ne his mildheortnesse biddan, swa he mæg mid þillicum sealmum 7 mid oþrum swilcum'

('No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such').

This is closely adapted from the advice given in De laude psalmorum:

‘nullatenus potest tua propria lingua nec humano sensu tam perfecte miseriam tuam ac atribulacione angustiamque diversarum tribulacione explicare et illius misericordiam implorare quam in his psalmis et ceteris his similibus’

('You cannot in any way, in your own language, nor in human thought, so perfectly explain your suffering, and the trouble and constriction of various temptations, and ask his mercy as in these psalms and in others similar to them').

Medieval manuscript with text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning
Text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI f. 2v

This quotation, short though it is, shows how a popular text could be copied by scribes in different places, and in different languages, across the centuries. One of the exciting things about the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project has been the discovery of new copies of texts and of the common interests which bring manuscripts from England and France together.

Kate Thomas 

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09 February 2020

Middle English manuscripts galore

What do The Vision of Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales and The Master of Game have in common?

They are all found in British Library manuscripts which have recently been digitised and are now available to view online. Thanks to a generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, forty-one of our priceless Middle English manuscripts have been conserved, digitised and catalogued and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can download the full list of Middle English manuscripts (in the form of an Excel spreadsheet). The full list is also found below.

So which manuscripts can you explore from the comfort of your office/living room/bed [delete as appropriate], thanks to the wonders of modern technology? If the Chester Cycle of plays is your thing, copied by the scribe George Bellin in 1600, why not look up Harley MS 2013? If you're a fan of the poetry of John Lydgate (who isn't?), you have lots of new manuscripts to choose from, including Harley MS 116, Harley MS 629 and Harley MS 1245. It was a difficult task to select which manuscripts to digitise (we estimate that we hold at least 600 volumes containing Middle English, the largest such collection in the world), but we were able to include The Seege of Troy (Harley MS 525), the poems of Charles of Orléans (Harley MS 682) and the South English Legendary (Harley MS 2277). Which are your favourites? A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen, anyone (Harley MS 45)?

A page of Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, with a decorated border

The opening page of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, beginning 'This booke was compilid by Iohn lidgate monke of Bury at the excitacion and steryng of oure worshipful Prince kyng herry the fifthe, in the honour glorie and worshippe of the birthe of the most glorious maide wife and moder of oure lord ihesu criste chapitrid and markyd after this table': Harley MS 629, f. 2r

 

The opening page of A Mirror to Lewd Men and Women

This copy of A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen was owned by Margaret Bent in the 15th century: Harley MS 45, f. 1r

 

The opening page of the Chester Cycle

The opening page of the Chester Cycle: Harley MS 2013, f. 4r

 

The Seege of Troye, with Robert Cotton's signature in the upper margin

This manuscript of The Seege of Troye once belonged to the famous collector Sir Robert Cotton: Harley MS 525, f. 1r

 

Drawings of four types of fish

Drawings of four types of fish (a trout, a pike, a minnow, a porpoise) on a formerly blank page of The Vision of Piers Plowman: Harley MS 6041, f. 96v

 

Once again, we are extremely grateful to The American Trust for the British Library for providing the funding that supported this project. We feel a little like Chaucer's pilgrims: there is a long journey ahead of us, but plenty to keep us occupied along the way.

Shelfmark Title Digitised Manuscripts URL
Harley MS 0024 Prose Brut http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_24  
Harley MS 0045 A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_45
Harley MS 0116 An English miscellany including Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes; The Short Charter of Christ; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato and Cato Major; anonymous Middle English poems and poems by John Lydgate; Gottfried von Franken, Godfridus Super Palladium (Middle English translation); Nicholas Bollard, The Book of Planting and Grafting http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_116
Harley MS 0172 A devotional miscellany of Middle English prose and verse http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_172
Harley MS 0271 The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_271
Harley MS 0525 The Seege of Troy; Robert of Cisyle; Speculum Gy de Warewyke http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_525
Harley MS 0565 Chronicle of London; an English poem on the expedition of Henry V into France; John Lydgate, King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_565
Harley MS 0614 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_614 
Harley MS 0629 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_629
Harley MS 0661 John Hardying, Chronicle in verse (second version) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_661 
Harley MS 0682 Charles of Orléans, Collected poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_682
Harley MS 0875 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_875
Harley MS 0913 The Kildare Lyrics http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_913
Harley MS 1239 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde; a selection from The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1239
Harley MS 1245 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes; Defence of Holy Church http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1245
Harley MS 1304 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1304
Harley MS 1568 The Prose Brut Chronicle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1568
Harley MS 1671  The Weye of Paradys (unfinished) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1671
Harley MS 1701 Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne; Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord and the Hours of the Passion; King Robert of Sicily; a mass against the plague http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1701
Harley MS 2013 The Chester Cycle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2013
Harley MS 2250 Miscellany of Middle English poems on the life of Christ; John Watton, Speculum Christiani; Pseudo-Bonventura, Dieta Salutis (excerpts); catechetical teachings; saints' lives; John Mirk, Festial (extracts); Middle English tracts on the reckoning of time; anonymous theological tract on the Ten Commandments, vices and virtues; Robert of Winchelsey, Constitutio de Juramento ac Obedientia http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2250
Harley MS 2255 A collection of poems by John Lydgate http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2255
Harley MS 2277 South English Legendary http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2277 
Harley MS 2280 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2280
Harley MS 2338 The Meditations of the Supper of Our Lord (abridged version); a Merlin prophecy (imperfect) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2338
Harley MS 2376 William Langland, Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2376
Harley MS 2382 Middle English verse collection including Lydgate's Life of Our Lady and Chaucer's Prioress' Tale and Second Nun's Tale http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2382
Harley MS 2392 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2392
Harley MS 372 John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; anonymous prayers and poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_372
Harley MS 3862 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3862
Harley MS 3943 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3943
Harley MS 4011 An English miscellany including poems by John Lydgate; Craft of Dying; Duodecim Gradus Humilitatis; Counsels of Isidore; The Libel of English Policy; Osbern Bokenham, Mappula Anglie; John Skelton, Of the Death of the Noble Prince, Kynge Edwarde the Forth; John Russell, Book of Nurture http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4011
Harley MS 4203 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4203
Harley MS 4260 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4260
Harley MS 4789 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_4789  
Harley MS 4912 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4912
Harley MS 5086 Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game; The Babees’s Book; The ABC of Aristotle; Dietary for King Henry V; Treatise on equine medicine http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5086
Harley MS 5272 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Life of St Dorothy; The Abbey of the Holy Ghost http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5272
Harley MS 6041 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_6041
Harley MS 7333 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, and other Middle English poetic works by Benedict Burgh, John Lydgate, Richard Sellyng, Charles d'Orléans, John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_7333 
Harley MS 7335 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_7335

 

Julian Harrison

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04 February 2020

Medical recipes from Gilbertine nuns

On 4 February we celebrate the feast of St Gilbert of Sempringham (1083–1189), an Englishman of Anglo-Norman descent who established the Gilbertine Order – the only religious Order that was founded in England during the Middle Ages. We would like to mark this event by sharing our discovery of a previously unidentified manuscript that was owned by the first of the thirteen monasteries that Gilbert established during his life: the Priory of St Mary at Sempringham in Lincolnshire.

The feast of St Gilbert highlighted in a calendar with blue and red ink, reading ‘Sancti Gileberti confessoris’

The feast of St Gilbert highlighted in a calendar of saints (England, c. 1260): Add MS 54179, f. 1v

Gilbert founded Sempringham Priory, in or shortly before 1131, for seven women who desired to follow a strict religious life. The house developed into a double monastery of nuns living under the Benedictine Rule, supported by priests following the Augustinian Rule, lay brothers and sisters. Three prioresses presided over the community.

The priory was dissolved in 1538, and subsequently completely demolished. Only six manuscripts from Sempringham are known to survive (they include Royal MS 3 A XV and Royal MS 5 C V). These were copied between the 12th and 14th centuries, mostly containing biblical and theological texts in Latin.

A Gilbertine canon in a white habit, with a tonsure and beard, kneeling in prayer before St John the Baptist, who is holding and pointing to an Agnus Dei

A Gilbertine canon kneeling in prayer before St John the Baptist (Sempringham, late 13th century): Royal MS 3 B III, f. 1r

Among the manuscripts surviving from Sempringham is a single Middle English text. This is an early translation of the Lord’s Prayer added to a Latin collection of the works of the theologian St Augustine of Hippo, found in Royal MS 5 C V.

The Lord’s Prayer in Middle English, written in brown ink

The Lord’s Prayer in Middle English (Sempringham, late 13th or early 14th century): Royal MS 5 C V, f. 307r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently found a previously unnoticed 15th-century collection of Middle English recipes in Harley MS 6816 that apparently belonged to Sempringham Priory. The recipes are written on a booklet that was tucked away among 17th-century medical texts by the manuscript’s anonymous compiler. The booklet (ff. 97r–134r) contains recipes against ailments, diseases and poisons (nearly identical to those in Sloane MS 3285), recipes for making medical unguents, ointments and oils, and a glossary of plant names in Latin and English. Here are a few highlights:  

An ointment for lightness in the head:

Take the juice of danewort, salt, honey, wax, and incense, boil them together over a fire, and anoint the head and temples therewith.  

Anoyment for vanite in the hede

Tak the juse of wallworte salte and hony and wax and ensens and boile them to geder over þe fire and ther withe anoynte þe hede and the temples (f. 97r)

 

For watering eyes:

Take a red cabbage leaf, smear it with the white of an egg, and put it on the watering eyes when you go to bed.

For wateringe eighen

Take a rede cole leffe and anoynte hit with the whitte of a egge and ley hit to the waterringe eyghen when thou goste to beedd (f. 97v)For a man who talks in his sleep:

 

For a man who talks in his sleep:

Take southern wormwood, mix it with wine, let the sick drink thereof when he goes to bed and it will calm him.

For a mon þat spekethe in his slepe

Take sowthernwoode and temper hit with wine and lett the seke drincke þerof when he gothe to his beede and it shall sece hym (f. 98v)

 

For a man who has a perilous cough:

Take rue, sage, cumin, and pepper powder, boil them together in honey, make an electuary [a sort of medical syrup], and use thereof a spoonful in the evening and another one in the morning.

For a man that hathe a perelous coghe

Take rewe sage and comyn and powder of pepper and seth them to geder in hony and make a letvarie and use here of a sponefull att even and a oder att morne (f. 99r)

 

For a headache:

Take vervain with honey and vinegar, blend them together, and drink it while fasting.

For the hede ache

 Take verveyn with hony and eysell and temper hem to geder and drincke hit fastinge (f. 107v)

A page with medical recipes written in brown ink from Harley MS 6816

Recipes against worms in the ears and the poisonous bite of an adder (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 101r

The booklet in Harley MS 6816 was probably at Sempringham Priory soon after it was produced. This is suggested by a legal document, dated to 8 March 1504, that an early 16th-century owner added to the booklet’s final leaf. In the document, the prioresses of Sempringham — ‘we the prioresses of the monastery of St Mary of Sempringham’ (‘nos priorissae Monasterij beate Marie de [Sem]pyngham’) — record a payment from the abbot of another monastery, possibly the nearby Premonstratensian abbey of Newbo.

A legal document from the prioresses of Sempringham Priory, written in brown ink

An indenture from Sempringham Priory (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 134r

The document suggests that the collection of recipes was used by the nuns at Sempringham Priory. We know from the Book of St Gilbert — a collection of documents concerning the life and miracles of the saint which survives in Cotton MS Cleopatra B I and Harley MS 468 — that the nuns used such medical remedies. It records that a nun from Sempringham used to treat another nun who was suffering from leprosy with medical unguents in the infirmary.

A page from The Book of St Gilbert with a puzzle initial with foliate motifs in blue and red

The Book of St Gilbert (England, 1st half of the 13th century): Harley MS 468, f. 4v

That Harley MS 6816’s medical recipes were used by religious owners is also evident from additions that were made to the booklet’s final pages. These contain Latin prayers to St Anthony of Egypt and St Sebastian for protection against the plague, and a drawing of the body of Christ after it had been taken from the Cross.

The naked dead body of Christ, partially wrapped in a burial shroud, displaying bloodied wounds in his head from the Crown of Thorns and a side wound inflicted by the lance of the Roman soldier Longinus

The dead body of Christ (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 134v 

Harley MS 6816 shows that Sempringham Priory, like other monasteries, had access to medical texts. Moreover, it suggests that although the collection of medical recipes may not have been written at the priory, the community customised it by adding their own religious texts and imagery.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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