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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

17 November 2018

Fantastic books and where to see them

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This weekend is a special moment for Harry Potter fans in the United Kingdom. The latest instalment of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is released in cinemas nationwide, starring Johnny Depp, Eddie Redmayne and Ezra Miller (all of whom have visited the British Library). Many of us in the Library's Medieval Manuscripts team are huge fans of the world of Harry Potter, but it has to be said that our day-to-day activities are more concerned with the care of fantastic manuscripts rather than fantastic beasts!

So where can you find some absolutely jaw-dropping manuscripts? Look no further than our sensational Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which has been drawing in the crowds (and is open until 19 February 2019).

Here is a selection of some of the outstanding books on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, in the order that you will find them in the gallery. Which are your favourites?

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The St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v): made in late 6th century Italy, this gospel-book may have been brought to Anglo-Saxon England by some of the Christian missionaries who arrived from Rome in 597.

 

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The Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk.5.16, f. 94r): Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a critical source for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity. The Moore Bede is probably the oldest surviving copy, made around the year 737.

 

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The Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 57, f. 85v): the earliest of the fully decorated insular gospel books, drawing on sources and inspiration from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Pictland and the Mediterranean.

 

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r): the work of a single scribe and artist, and often acclaimed as one of the most spectacular manuscripts to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

 

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library Additional MS 89000): discovered in St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, this small copy of the Gospel of St John is the earliest surviving European book with an intact binding.

 

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Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1): this colossal manuscript is one of three single-volume copies of the Bible made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. It was taken to Rome in 716, and has returned temporarily to England (for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) for the first time in 1302 years.

 

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The Book of Nunnaminster (British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 16v): one of a group of 9th-century prayer books whose contents, script and decoration are all linked to Mercia. It may have been used by Mercian noblewomen, as two of its prayers include words written in the feminine form.

 

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King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r): this translation of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), who is known to have encouraged the translation of Latin texts into English to aid learning and education in his kingdom.

 

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript B (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v): this version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves an account of the campaigns of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and his wife Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (d. 918), against the Viking invaders.

 

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Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v): this famous image of King Æthelstan (924–939) presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert is the earliest surviving manuscript ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king.

 

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The Coronation Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v): a gospel-book presented to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, by Æthelstan, the first king of the English (924–939).

 

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Beowulf (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r): the only medieval copy of what is widely regarded as the greatest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

 

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The Old English Hexateuch (British Library Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 19r): the earliest example of an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Old Testament.

 

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The Marvels of the East (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81v): fantastic illustrations accompany these descriptions of 37 ‘marvels’. This manuscript also contains lists of popes, Anglo-Saxon kings and Roman emperors, and a map of the world.

 

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Dunstan’s Classbook (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.4.32, f. 1r): Dunstan was archbishop of Canterbury (959–988) and leader of the Benedictine reform movement, and the ‘Classbook’ contains annotations in his own hand.

 

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The Trinity Gospels (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r): one of the most sumptuous of all 11th-century gospel books, featuring extensive use of gold and beautifully painted images.

 

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels (New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover): a splendidly decorated gospel-book which is associated with Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig, earl of Northumbria (d. 1066). Many Anglo-Saxon gospel-books are known to have had treasure bindings such as this, but very few of them survive.

 

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Encomium of Queen Emma (British Library Additional MS 33241, f. 1v): a fascinating text in praise of Queen Emma, wife successively of two kings of England, Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) and Cnut (1016–1035).

 

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Great Domesday (The National Archives, E 31/2/2, f. 304v): one of the most significant manuscripts in English history, preserving a major portion of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085.

 

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The Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 32, f. 8r): made in northern France during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), this revolutionary manuscript was in Canterbury by the 11th century, when it was used as the model for another fantastic manuscript on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the Harley Psalter (British Library Harley MS 603).

 

All of these books are testament to the creativity and skill of their Anglo-Saxon scribes, artists and makers and to the care of their subsequent owners. We are particularly grateful to all our lenders credited here (from Cambridge, Dublin, Florence, London, New York, Oxford and Utrecht), without whom our exhibition would not have been so FANTASTIC.

You can book your tickets to see the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019) here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 November 2018

Medieval hipsters

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This month many people are celebrating Movember, yet few imagine that one of the most detailed works on beards comes from the medieval period. The Church Fathers had thought about facial hair in moral and theological terms, while medieval theologians and clergymen debated whether communities of priests, monks and other clerics could grow beards at all. By the 12th century, canon law forbade Western clerics to grow beards, as beardlessness came to be associated with the purity and humility of angels. Laymen could grow beards if they wished, but that would mark them out even further from the clergy.

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A group of clean-shaven clerics offering St Benedict a copy of his Rule (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

It is therefore surprising that a monastic author should have left us the only known apologetic treatise on beards. Burchard was abbot of the French Cistercian abbey of Bellevaux near Besançon, and in the 1160s he wrote to the community at Rosières, a neighbouring house of the same Order, to make amends for an offensive letter condemning the lay brothers for growing their beards. Cistercian lay brothers did not take the monastic habit, but they helped the monks run the abbey. They lived in separate quarters and led different lifestyles, which extended in turn to their facial hair.

Entitled ‘In defence of beards’ (Apologia de barbis), Burchard’s letter is actually a treatise in three chapters encouraging the lay brothers not to cut their beards. The author remarkably referred to his subject as barbilogia (‘barbilogy’) and to himself as barbilogus (‘barbilogist’). He could not have been more hip and modern.

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The opening of Abbot Burchard’s Apologia de barbis with an intricate anthropomorphic initial including bearded faces (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 1r

Burchard’s ‘barbilogy’ survives in only one manuscript (Add MS 41997). It starts with what it means to grow a beard, then goes on to describe different types of beards, styles and treatments, and to give beard-related advice. Burchard mentioned more than 10 styles of beard, including one ‘urban’ (urbana figuratio) and one military, which, he added, does not go well with long hair. There was the beard that covers the chin (barba mentanea), that from under the chin (submentanea), and the side beard (barba maxillaris). We are told that long sideburns and the beard under the chin make the face resemble a goat, while moustaches reaching to the ears resemble a wild boar. There is inequality between men according to their beards: there are those with precocious beards (citiberbes), those with late-developed beards (tardiberbes), those whose beards are thin and whispy (rariberbes), and those with even, bushy beards (pleniberbes).

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Woden as a bushy-bearded god, the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon kings (England, 12th century), currently on display in Anglo-Saxon KingdomsCotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

According to the barbilogist, there was a close link between a man’s beard and his spiritual life. A beard could save a man’s life, or it could drag him straight to Hell, where there would be weeping, gnashing of teeth and, as Burchard noted, the burning of beards.

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A drawing of nine bearded figures from the late-medieval period added at the end of Burchard’s ‘Defence’ and inspired by it (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 95r

Burchard warned furthermore that a long beard might become a hindrance and an object of contempt in the eyes of the beardless. This is mirrored by an image in another manuscript (Arundel MS 155), which depicts Goliath with a long, pointy beard, before a clean-shaven David cuts off his head. 

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A clean-shaven David holding Goliath by the beard before cutting off his head (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

According to Abbot Burchard, a suitable, well-trimmed beard was a symbol of strength, maturity, wisdom and religion. For instance, we are told that a half-beard, meaning a lonely moustache, was a 'monstrous sign'. The connection between beards and medieval notions of masculinity is suggested by an entry in an 11th-century dreambook (concerning the interpretation of dreams) â€” dreaming of having one’s own beard cut meant that something terrible would happen to you.

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Dream prognostics in Latin with an Old English interlinear translation (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 28r

The manuscript containing Burchard's treatise is part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching in one week! Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

 

Cristian Ispir

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13 November 2018

Lichfield: the third archbishopric

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For the majority of the Anglo-Saxon period, the English Church had two archbishoprics, one at Canterbury and the other at York, just as it does today. So it might surprise some of you to hear that from 787 to 803 the English Church had a third archbishopric, at Lichfield in Staffordshire!

What's the difference between a bishop and an archbishop? The answer lies partly in an ecclesiastical vestment known as a pallium. This was a woollen band, which had lain for a time on St Peter’s tomb in Rome, before being granted to a bishop by the pope. The possession of a pallium signified the special relationship between bishop and pope, and eventually came to signify the status of an archbishop. In 787 the bishop of Lichfield received such a pallium and rose to the rank of archbishop.

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Evangelist portrait of Luke in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 218

At the turn of the 9th century, Lichfield was located in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose heartlands flanked the River Trent. Chad, the first known bishop of Lichfield, was appointed by King Wulfhere of Mercia (d. 675). Earlier in his career, Chad is known to have spent time at the monasteries of Rath Melsigi in Ireland and at Lindisfarne, which had strong Irish connections.

This Irish relationship influenced the community established at Lichfield. It can be detected, for instance, in the St Chad Gospels, which has been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Lichfield Cathedral. Scholars have noted that the artistic style of this gospel-book resembles the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that its text aligns with a group of mostly Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh and the MacRegol Gospels. The St Chad Gospels was produced around the middle of the 8th century, and at some stage it even travelled to Wales: some of its marginal notes are among the earliest examples of written Welsh.

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The four evangelist symbols in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 219

King Offa of Mercia (d. 796) was an extremely powerful Anglo-Saxon king, who had a friendly rivalry with his continental contemporary, Charlemagne (d. 814). In 781, Charlemagne’s sons were anointed as kings in Rome; in response, Offa also desired that his son, Ecgfrith, be crowned as king. This was not a simple request, as it was relatively unusual for the sons of kings to be anointed while their father was still alive. 

Anointing a king was a task for an archbishop. When the archbishop of Canterbury refused to anoint Ecgfrith, Offa decided to create a new archbishopric in his own kingdom of Mercia. He wrote to Pope Hadrian to request that Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield, be made an archbishop. The request was granted, and by 787 Hygeberht was signing charters as an archbishop.

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Hygeberht signing as an archbishop, in the third line from the top: British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 97

Lichfield seems to have prospered during its brief time as an archbishopric. In 2003, excavations at Lichfield Cathedral uncovered a limestone fragment carved in the resemblance of an angel. Although the angel has since faded to white, analysis suggests that it had once been splendidly painted. The angel’s wings in particular were painted in red and yellow, to replicate a ‘red-gold’ appearance that was highly prized among the Anglo-Saxons.

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The Lichfield Angel, courtesy of Lichfield Cathedral

The wings of the Lichfield Angel may have had a similar appearance to gold and silver items produced elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England. Examples of this style of decoration are found in the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered very near to Lichfield in 2009.

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Items from the Staffordshire Hoard, courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, on behalf of Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Lichfield’s time as an archbishopric was short-lived. Its new-found status created organisational problems in the English Church, leading King Coenwulf of Mercia (796–821) to write to Pope Leo III (795–816), requesting that Lichfield be restored to a bishopric.

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Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Pope Leo granted Coenwulf’s request, and in 803 the English Church met at Clofesho to confirm the downgrading of the archbishopric of Lichfield. The official decree, issued as a result of the meeting, is also on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The list of witnesses begins with two names: Æthelheard of Canterbury, who signed as archbishop, while Ealdwulf, the former archbishop of Lichfield, attested this decree as bishop once more.

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Æthelheard signs as archbishop with Bishop Ealdwulf's name immediately below: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

As a consequence, Mercia once again fell under Canterbury's authority, and the balance of ecclesiastical power in England reverted to Canterbury and York, just as it remains today.

Visitors to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War will be able to see the Lichfield Angel and the St Chad Gospels, kindly loaned by Lichfield Cathedral, as well as items from the Staffordshire Hoard and the British Library manuscripts discussed in this blogpost. Tickets for the exhibition, which runs until 19 February 2019, are available here.