Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from July 2016

11 July 2016

Robert of Cricklade: Why I Write

The problem of whether to write something new or dig something up from the past is perennial. As Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘There is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome.’ This was especially a problem for medieval writers, from whom we have inherited a concern for demonstrating the authorities supporting our assertions. Some intellectuals in the Middle Ages wondered whether there was any purpose in writing at all, given the wealth of books already available.

Robert of Cricklade thought otherwise. Born in Wiltshire, he was first a teacher, later becoming an Augustinian canon (halfway between a monk and a secular priest) at nearby Cirencester Abbey. Around 1138/9, he was put in charge of St Frideswide’s Priory in Oxford, much of which still stands today as part of Christ Church. One of five copies of his unpublished book On the Marriage of Jacob (De connubio Iacob) is in the British Library.


Robert of Cricklade’s On the Marriage of Jacob, late 12th century, Royal MS 8 E II, f. 1.

Robert was an indefatigable supporter of contemporary writers. He asserts that if others think he should stop writing, perhaps they were merely jealous. He offers a challenge: Do you want me to pay attention to you? Then give me something to read (Royal MS 8 E II, f. 49r–v):

Let them call to mind that it is written, ‘jealousy slays the simple’ [Job 5:2], those namely who in being jealous prove that they are lesser than those of whom they are jealous. If they grieve that I write, let them also write, and I will certainly read their writings, as it is said, ‘with a bowed head’ [Horace, Saturae 3.80], as theirs; I read now those who write now, not being jealous and disparaging, but giving thanks that thus far ‘the Lord’ has not, as the prophet says, ‘forsaken the land’ [Ezekiel 8:12, 9:9], since even in our age people may be found who can stir us up to love of his sayings and writings.

For I also read the writings of the venerable abbot of Clairvaux that came into our hands; and I not only read the splendid work of the man of highest erudition, William, monk and cantor of the church of Malmesbury, that he compiled on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, but I also had it written, so that it might be found in our church. I read also his book on the miracles of the most blessed mother of God and perpetual virgin, Mary, which is also found in our church. What shall I say on his compilations from the works of the most blessed Pope Gregory, in which the violent uprooter of sins and loving builder of virtues appears so that in him in a certain way it seems to be fulfilled which is written, ‘See, I have set you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to build and to plant.’ [Jeremiah 1:10] I have not yet read his other works, but I will read them if it should please God and the space of my life is extended. For I am not jealous of writing monks, but I rejoice with them, although I am not a monk, but the most unworthy of the canons of Cirencester of the church of St Mary, the mother of God, under the discipline of the holy and venerable Serlo, the first abbot of the place, praying to God for the remission of their sins.

Robert’s approach was not mere words; although his copies of William of Malmesbury do not survive, some of the other remaining books from Malmesbury and Cirencester show evidence of exchanges between the two locations, only 20 km apart. In Oxford, he wrote a life of St Frideswide that showed the priory’s patron saint as a precocious learner (and far more intelligent than a typical male child). Even after Robert’s death (between 1174 and 1180), his work at Oxford and Cirencester inspired the work of the famous Alexander Neckam (1157–1217).

Robert’s advice holds true for any of us today suffering from writer’s block. Bragging that your talent exceeds even that of J.R.R. Tolkien won’t achieve anything. ‘Nunc lego qui nunc scribunt’ – ‘I read now those who write now’.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

09 July 2016

Caption Competition No. 5

Dear Readers,

It's caption time again! And today (you lucky people) we're giving you not one but two — yes, TWO — chances to exercise your brains/show off to your friends. Over to you!

For inspiration (if you need any), the original images are found in an English Apocalypse manuscript, dating from the 1st quarter of the 14th century (British Library Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 18v, 43v).

We look forward to receiving your contributions – the best suggestions will be published on our Twitter account (@BLMedieval) in the next few days.







Update (13 July)

We received some fantastic suggestions for our latest caption competition. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed: here is a small selection of our favourites.

Caption 1

@keithedkins OK Jeremy, you've had long enough, here are my 50 nominations to stand against you

@julianpharrison Thank goodness you've brought the toilet paper

Caption 2

@obrienatrix Early experimental stages: how the hole got in the #medievaldonut

@tudorcook Oh and that's a poor effort from the Heavenly Host team in this first round of the shot putt!

07 July 2016

The Translation of Thomas Becket

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Translation of Thomas Becket. On this day in 1220 the relics of this famous English martyr were ‘translated’ or moved from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to an elaborate shrine in the newly-constructed apse at the east end of the cathedral. In the words of Kay Slocum (Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket, Toronto, 2004), this was ‘one of the most important and sumptuous state occasions of the 13th century’. King Henry III of England was in attendance, together with the political and religious great and good, and a new liturgical office was composed for the occasion. Unfortunately, the shrine was destroyed in 1538 by order of King Henry VIII, but the legend and the liturgy survive.

Two manuscripts in the British Library's collections contain versions of the Office for the Translation. One of these, the ‘Stowe Breviary’ (also known as the ‘Norwich Breviary’, Stowe MS 12), can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. This manuscript was made in the diocese of Norwich within a few years of the translation of Becket’s relics, and it is illuminated in the East Anglian style perfected in the Gorleston Psalter.


Historiated initial depicting the translation of Thomas of Canterbury, with the name ‘Thomas’ erased in the rubric on the right of the initial: 1322-1325, the ‘Stowe Breviary’, Stowe MS 12, f. 270r

Thomas Becket, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, was murdered in the cathedral on 29 December 1170 by three knights, widely believed to have been acting on the orders of King Henry II. Henry had been incensed by Becket’s refusal to recognise the power of the English monarch over the Church. The story of Becket’s martyrdom spread rapidly through Europe and it was widely represented in medieval art. One of the most famous series of images is that found in the Queen Mary Psalter, one of which is shown here (they can all be seen on Digitised Manuscripts).


A bas-de-page image illustrating the murder of Thomas Becket, from the Queen Mary Psalter: England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?) between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 298r

Three years after his death, Becket was canonised by the Pope, and his cult became one of the most widely celebrated in the Middle Ages. Liturgies were composed for his feast day, 29 December, with lessons recounting his life and legend and chants celebrating his miracles. In the Huth Psalter from northern England, St Thomas is portrayed alongside the very popular St Margaret and St Catherine of Alexandria.


Thomas Becket is murdered by a group of knights; Margaret emerges from the belly of a dragon, and beats a demon with a flail; Catherine of Alexandria prays amidst the dead bodies of the men who attempted to martyr her by breaking her over a wheel. An angel breaks the wheels with clubs: England (Lincoln or York?), 4th quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 38116, f. 13r

The Penwortham Breviary (Add MS 52359), a beautifully decorated manuscript from northern England, contains a series of liturgies for Thomas Becket with musical notation.


Part of the Office of St Thomas Becket from a Sarum Breviary (the ‘Penworthiam Breviary’): northern England, c 1300-1319, Additional MS 52359, f. 49v

By the early 13th century crowds of pilgrims from across Europe visited Becket’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral, returning home with tales of miraculous events. Following an earlier papal decree, his relics were to be moved to a magnificent new shrine and the Archbishop at the time, Stephen Langton, planned the occasion meticulously, choosing an auspicious date, rather than exactly 50 years to the day from Becket’s death. Tuesday, 7 July 1220, was ‘according to the details given in Leviticus … on the tenth day … of the seventh month after seven-times-seven years from the event; and for good measure, the day was Tuesday, corresponding with the special Tuesdays in Becket’s life, the date was the anniversary of Henry II’s inhumation in 1189, and 1220 was a leap-year, a time of good fortune’ (Ann Duggan, ‘The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Thirteenth Century’, in St Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford: Essays in His Honour, ed. by Meryl Jancey, Hereford, 1982, pp. 38-39). Unfortunately the shrine was destroyed in 1538 by order of King Henry VIII, but a candle in Canterbury Cathedral marks the spot.

The Office for the Translation of Thomas Becket is included in a number of surviving breviaries, and it continued to be celebrated every 50 years from 1220 to 1470, an unprecedented honour for an English saint. A second copy in the British Library's collections is found in Additional MS 28598, a late 13th-century breviary from Ely, with the same antiphons and responsories as Stowe MS 12, but with musical notation. A unique prosa (a set of rhymed couplets set to music added to a responsory on special occasions) follows Lesson 9, which tells how the martyr resuscitated a young girl for the second time.


A page from a Breviary with musical notation, late 13th century, England, E. (Ely), Additional MS 28598, f. 29r

You can read more about Thomas Becket in our blogpost Murder in the Cathedral.

Chantry Westwell


06 July 2016

The Execution of Sir Thomas More

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential early modern books, Thomas More's Utopia. We currently have a Utopia display in our Treasures Gallery, and this Friday, 8 July, historian John Guy will be talking about Thomas More and Utopia at the British Library. Today is also the anniversary of the execution of Sir Thomas More on 6 July 1535, the subject of this blogpost.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Frick Collection, New York

Sir Thomas More, English lawyer, diplomat, statesman and internationally renowned humanist scholar, entered royal service in 1517 and was appointed Lord Chancellor of the Realm in 1529, following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. More, who first met Henry VIII in 1499 when he accompanied Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar, on a visit to Eltham Palace to meet the 9-year-old prince, became a close friend and confidant of the adult king. The two men shared a passion for astrology and according to contemporary accounts enjoyed gazing at the stars together after supper and discussing theology, which was another of their shared interests. As a devout Catholic and loyal servant of the Pope, More used his growing influence in the 1520s to defend Catholic orthodoxy against the Lutheran movement, writing polemics against heresy, banning Protestant books and, as Lord Chancellor, prosecuting heretics.

More had opposed Henry VIII’s quest to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, but he nevertheless accepted the position of Lord Chancellor, trusting Henry’s promise to keep him out of such matters. By 1532, he was growing increasingly distressed over Henry’s repudiation of papal jurisdiction in England and the King’s increasing power over the Church. The final straw came on 15 May 1532 when the clergy submitted to Henry’s demand that they accept that all ecclesiastical law required royal assent. No longer able to serve the King and obey his own conscience, More resigned as Lord Chancellor the very next day and retired from public life to his family home in Chelsea. To avoid further trouble, More remained silent on the subject of the King’s marital problems, but his refusal to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533, followed by the publication of The Apology of Sir Thomas More, in which he urged ‘good catholic folk’ to defend the old faith, incurred the wrath of Henry and Anne. 

The moment that More and his family had long feared came on 12 April 1534 in the form of a summons to appear at Lambeth Palace to swear the Oath of Succession, which recognised Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s children as legitimate successors to the Crown and declared Princess Mary to be illegitimate. The next day, More stood before the King’s commissioners, including Cromwell and Cranmer, and declared that although he was willing to accept Henry’s new wife and the succession he refused to swear the oath, the preamble to which also renounced papal power and affirmed the Royal Supremacy. More was arrested for his act of disloyalty to the King and imprisoned in the Tower along with John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and active supporter of Katherine of Aragon, who had also refused to swear the Oath of Succession. 


Letter from Sir Thomas More to Margaret Roper from the Tower, reporting on his interrogation before members of the King’s Council, on Friday 30 April. Tower of London, 2-3 May 1535 (London, British Library, Arundel MS 152, f. 294r)

In November 1534, the Act of Treasons made ‘malicious’ denial of the royal supremacy punishable by death. More was interrogated on four different occasions in the Tower but held firm to his principles and steadfastly refused to acknowledge Henry’s Supremacy which would require him to deny his ultimate allegiance to the papacy. In the dignified letter illustrated above, written to his daughter, Margaret Roper, More provides a detailed account of his interrogation on 30 April 1535 before Thomas Cromwell, who demanded on the King’s behalf to know More’s opinion on the Supremacy. More responded that his life was now reserved for ‘study upon the passion of Christ’ and his own ‘passage out of this world’ and he refused to ‘meddle with any matter of this world’. As if sensing that his words would be preserved for posterity, More defiantly declared on the final page, ‘I am, quoth I, the King’s true faithful subject and daily bedesman and pray for his highness and all his and all the realm. I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive in good faith I long not to live’. It certainly wasn’t enough for Henry, who demanded More’s full submission; anything less was unacceptable.

On 1 July 1535, Thomas More stood trial for treason, and he was condemned to death for ‘maliciously denying the royal Supremacy’. Five days later, while Henry hunted at Reading, More was beheaded on Tower Hill, proclaiming himself ‘the King’s good servant but God’s first’.

Visions of Utopia is a free display at the British Library, open until 18 September, featuring an original edition of Utopia and books and documents associated with Thomas More. John Guy's lecture, Thomas More and Utopia (8 July), will examine the contents of this famous book, why it was written and its intended audience.

Andrea Clarke

05 July 2016

Masons and Manuscripts

What do the masons who built medieval cathedrals, the philosopher Voltaire and the artist Marc Chagall have in common? Give yourself a pat on the back if you knew that they are all associated with freemasonry. The history of freemasonry is the subject of a major exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, open until 24 July 2016, to which the British Library has loaned two medieval manuscripts.

The tower of Babel being built by masons, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England, c. 1350-1375, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v

Freemasonry had its origins in the building of medieval cathedrals. In the late Middle Ages, masons gathered in guilds or lodges regulated by statutes. Each new mason had to undergo an apprenticeship of seven years and to swear an oath before they could receive the status of mason. At around the same time, a legend was created to enhance the status and importance of masons’ work. The oldest versions of this legend are dated to the end of the 14th century and the early 15th century, and they survive in two British Library manuscripts (Royal MS 17 A I and Additional MS 23198). They contain a verse history of masonry and of the regulations of the craft of masonry, ending with a prayer. These poems give a mythical account of the origins of mason’s craft: they claim that the secrets of practical geometry and masonry were created with the world and were the foundation of all knowledge, and that masonry was established in England during the reign of King Athelstan (d. 939).

Royal 15 E II   f. 265
Detail of a mason and a carpenter, from Livre des proprietez des choses, Low Countries (Bruges), 1482, Royal MS 15 E II, f. 265r

In the 17th century, individuals who did not have links with masonry were admitted to lodges, first in Scotland and afterwards in England. The term ‘lodge’ designated the hut of masons and was extended to the corporation of masons. Freemasonry as we know it today originated in England in the 18th century, when some gentlemen masons – often members of the Royal Society or other learned men -- gathered at the ‘Goose and Gridiron’ tavern in St Paul’s churchyard, before uniting four London lodges into one in 1717. Freemason lodges played a key role in the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas because of the close links between members of the Royal Society and members of the Great Lodge of England.

A page from one of the earliest masonic treatises, Constituciones artis gemetrie secundum Euclyde, England, 15th century, Royal MS 17 A I, f. 1r

In 1725, English freemasons founded the first French lodge in the neighbourhood of St-Germain in Paris. The political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) was one of the first Frenchmen to become an ‘officer’, after having been initiated into freemasonry in an English lodge at Westminster in 1730. Despite some criticism, freemasonry flourished in France, and it counted among its members Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803), the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses, and the expressionist artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

The exhibition currently being staged in Paris aims to bring a new perspective to the origins and history of freemasonry. We are delighted that the British Library is a prominent lender to La Franc-Maçonnerie, and we hope that visitors to the exhibition enjoy seeing our manuscripts.

~Laure Miolo

01 July 2016

A Calendar Page for July 2016

For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July. 

Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat.  Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task.  Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar.  This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named.  The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised. 

Calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July.  At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar.  He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest.  Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’

Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

-   Sarah J Biggs