Medieval manuscripts blog

303 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

04 December 2018

Spong Man and friends

In early Anglo-Saxon times, East Anglia was an important kingdom, occupying most of what is now Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the years, archaeologists and antiquarians have unearthed objects which illuminate the lives of those who lived in or passed through East Anglia between the 5th and 9th centuries.

A stunning selection of objects from Anglo-Saxon East Anglia have been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service. These objects provide an invaluable insight into early burial practices, cultural habits and social structures among the East Angles.

Spong Man

Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum 1994.192.1

One such item currently on display in London is Spong Man, which was once the lid to a 5th-century cremation urn. This lid was excavated at Spong Hill, North Elmham, which is the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man is one of very few three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations from the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

Lead sheet with runic inscription

Lead sheet with runic inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 2004.37

Another object on loan from Norwich Castle Museum is this lead sheet with a runic inscription. It is one of several similar Anglo-Saxon lead sheets inscribed with runes. This particular sheet was discovered in Norfolk in 2004, and attempts to decipher the inscription suggest that it may have once been a memorial plate or fixed to a coffin.

Knife handle with an ogham inscription

Knife handle with an ogham inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 1950.24

Also featuring in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is this knife handle made from a red deer antler, which also has an inscription in ogham script. Ogham script uses straight or angled lines and was developed to write inscriptions in the early Irish language. Although this handle was discovered at Weeting in East Norfolk, it was most likely made far away in what is now Ireland or Scotland. It demonstrates that East Anglia had far-reaching connections with other parts of the British Isles.


Stylus: Norwich Castle Museum L2003.4

Bronze styli such as this were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The wider side was used to smooth  the wax flat, ready for use, while the pointed side was used to inscribe text on wax-filled tablets made of wood or bone.

Binham Hoard

The Binham Hoard: Norwich Castle Museum 

Norfolk Museums Service has also kindly loaned us some sensational gold and silver items. They include a selection from the Binham Hoard, a collection of 6th-century bracelets, brooches and bracteates (neck pendants that copy the designs of Roman coins and incorporate mythological imagery). The design of these bracteates derived from the practice of wearing pierced Roman coins as jewellery.

Harford Brooch front

The Harford Farm Brooch (front): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Harford Brooch back

The Harford Farm Brooch (back): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Another item of jewellery is the Harford Farm Brooch. This 7th-century gold and garnet brooch was found in a female grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norfolk, but it is typical of brooches made in Kent. A runic inscription on the back reads, ‘Luda repaired this brooch’. 

Winfarthing Pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017.519.6

This exquisitely decorated pendant was also found in the grave of a woman. She was buried in the first half of the 7th century in a cemetery near Winfarthing, south Norfolk.

Hockwold enamelled mounts

Enamelled mounts from Hockwold, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2010.292.1, 2010.292.2

Opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Book of Durrow

The opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow: Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 86r © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, it is often possible to compare manuscripts and metalwork side by side. The design of a pair of enamelled mounts from East Anglia bears similarities to the intricate insular designs found in the Book of Durrow (on loan from Trinity College, Dublin). This suggests that certain designs, and in some cases the artists who made them, could travel large distances during the early Middle Ages. The rivets on the edges of the mounts suggest that they were once affixed to a larger item, perhaps a hanging bowl.

All of these fascinating objects from Norfolk Museums Service can be viewed until 19 February 2019 in the Library's magnificent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.


Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


01 December 2018

A calendar page for December 2018

It’s December! Hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. But before the year comes to an end, we’ve got a few things to thresh out, literally …

Calendar page for December
Calendar page for December, made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

This is the page for December in a 1000-year-old calendar made in southern England. You can currently see the calendar on display in the British Library’s once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The page for December is accompanied by an image of men threshing and winnowing grain. Grain was harvested in ears. To separate the kernels out from the husks, the ears of grain were beaten with flails, as seen on the left of the image.

Detail of threshers
Detail of threshers: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

There was then a second process, winnowing, to ensure the edible parts of grain were separated out. Traditionally, winnowers toss the kernels in a basket or winnowing-fan. The heavy, edible kernels fall back down, while the undesirable chaff blows away.

Detail of man with a marked stick
Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

In the middle of the image, there is a man with stick which is not a flail. It has a serrated edge near the top, and horizontal lines all the way down. Another depiction of it can be found in a related calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, shown below). This might be another farm implement, but Debby Banham and Ros Faith have suggested that this man might be an overseer with a tally stick, counting how much grain had been prepared.

This gives a precious insight into the organisation of farming and landscape in 11th-century England. Very few notes on day-to-day farm work survive: the only exception seems to be the Ely Farming Memoranda (also on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). The organisation and records of English farming were part of the reason England became such a wealthy kingdom, and this organisation underpinned the impressive administrative achievement of Domesday Book. (At the risk of sounding like broken record, you can even see Domesday Book in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.)

Detail of man with a marked stick
Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

In the Julius Work Calendar, two men carry off an enormous basket, presumably filled with useable grain. In the Tiberius Work Calendar, the two men with a basket seem to be approaching the threshers, perhaps bringing the ears of grain to be threshed.

Detail of men winnowing and threshing
Detail of men winnowing and threshing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

As with earlier tasks featured in this calendar, threshing might not have been the most seasonal activity for December. However, it might have been linked to December because threshing was a major Biblical metaphor. Since threshing is the process that separates useful, edible grain from inedible husks, it was used in both the Old and New Testaments as a metaphor for judgement, for separating the good from the bad. This metaphor might have been particularly appropriate for Advent, which starts in December. Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. Today it is associated with chocolate calendars, but in Anglo-Saxon England it was a time of fasting and penance, like Lent, as people prepared themselves for the holy feasts.

There are a number of feasts highlighted with a gold cross in this calendar, all grouped towards the end of the month. The first of these falls on 21 December, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle which was also, the calendar notes, the Winter Solstice. Thomas was a popular saint in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English accounts were made of his life. Even the writer Ælfric was obliged to write an account of St Thomas’s life: he initially refused because other versions existed and because he and St Augustine had some doubts about some of the miracles attributed to Thomas. Their objection was not to the idea a miracle would happen, but because these stories portrayed Thomas as vengeful, taking delivery of a severed hand after its owner had slapped him.

Christmas and the following feast days marked out with gold crosses
Christmas and the following feast days marked out with gold crosses: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The next major holiday marked in the calendar is one we still celebrate today: Christmas. Learn more about how Christmas was celebrated in 11th-century English monasteries here. Then as now, Christmas kicked off a whole series of festivities: the next three days in the calendar are also marked out in gold. On 26 December is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Rather luridly, the verse in the calendar describes him ‘swimming in blood’. This is followed by the feast of St John the Evangelist and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the massacre of children in Bethlehem.

Detail of Sagittarius
Detail of Sagittarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

At the top of the page, there is information about astrological changes in December, including a roundel depicting the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is here depicted as a centaur, with his cape billowing out elegantly behind him.

Detail of Sagittarius from Cicero's Aratea
Detail of Sagittarius, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in a collection of astronomical texts made in Fleury in the 990s, with drawings added a few years later by an English artist: Harley MS 2506, f. 39v

Whatever is on your own calendar for December, we hope you have a great month. And if you are looking for something to do over the winter holidays, the British Library has an interesting exhibition on at the moment …

Alison Hudson

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28 November 2018

A spoonful of sugar

Today, the mention of sugar evokes reports about the harmful health effects of increased sugar consumption, and counter-actions such as the recently introduced UK ‘sugar tax’. But sugar is also a universally used inactive ingredient in many medications. As Mary Poppins was aware, it helps less pleasant ingredients go down. When sugar was first introduced to Europe, and for several centuries afterwards, it was regarded as an active — and curative — medical ingredient in its own right.

Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts

Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

One of the earliest mentions of sugar in England is found in a manuscript containing a collection of medical recipes, written in the mid-to-late 11th century (Sloane MS 1621). Although made in what is now the Low Countries or northern France, this manuscript was brought soon afterwards to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in England. Perhaps it came with Baldwin (d. c. 1097), originally from Chartres in France and physician to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), who was made abbot of Bury St Edmunds in 1065.

At Bury, numerous scribes added medical recipes to the book throughout the later decades of the century, suggesting it was valued and frequently consulted. Sugar is found in the ingredients lists of two of these added recipes, showing that Bury St Edmunds had access to the most current medical literature available in Latin. The close study of this manuscript, which led to the discovery of the recipes mentioning sugar, has been facilitated by its digitisation for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Recipe for the Rosatum tertiani febris ('A conserve of roses for tertian fever')

Starting on line 6, the Rosatum tertiani febris ('A conserve of roses for tertian fever') lists zuccari and siruppo albo (white syrup) as its ingredients, England (Bury St Edmunds), c. 1075–1100: Sloane MS 1621, f. 63r

Sugar is one of several exotic ingredients from the Far East that were largely unknown to the authors of the Greco-Roman sources that formed the core of medieval medical texts. These ingredients were not brought to Europe until the rise of the Arab-Muslim empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries. The Persian Sasanid Empire was among the first territories to be conquered, along with knowledge of cultivating sugarcane. This is demonstrated by the history of the word sugar itself, which reached English via the Medieval Latin zuccarum/saccarum derived from Arabic sukkar, which in turn stems from Persian šakar.

Sugar seems to have been among the later Arabic medical ingredients to reach Europe, as it is hardly ever mentioned in pre-11th century sources. Other Far Eastern ingredients brought to Europe by Arab merchants were definitely known sooner. Some were so well-known to the writers of Anglo-Saxon medical texts that they were adapted into Old English. For instance, two recipes in the work known as Lacnunga (Healings) list sideware (zedoary, from Persian zadwār) and gallengar (galangal, from Arabic ḵalanjān). The Latin versions of the words are zedoaria and galinga/galangal respectively. For more on exotic ingredients in Anglo-Saxon medicine, have a look at the illustrated Old English Herbal.

Lacnunga, remedy 30

Lacnunga, remedy 30

Lacnunga, remedy 30, To wensealfe (To [make] a wen-salve) with sideware and gallengar four lines down on the right, England, c. 975–1025: Harley MS 585, ff. 138r–v

What is so significant about the addition of recipes mentioning sugar in Sloane MS 1621, at a monastery in England, is the specific time at which it occurred. The closing decades of the 11th century witnessed exciting new developments in the history of medicine in Europe. The earliest translations of Arabic medical texts into Latin were made in central and southern Italy in the last quarter of the 11th century. It was through Arabic textual sources, as opposed to trade, that knowledge of sugar seemingly reached Europe. A key figure in this process may have been Constantine the African (d. c. 1087). Originally from Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), he had moved to Italy and entered the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino by 1077.

Recipe for Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum

Beginning on line 12, Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum: Sloane MS 1621, f. 52r.

Recipe for Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum

Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum, beginning on line 12 of the recto, and with the list of ingredients on the verso including ten drams each of zuccari and penidi (rock candy): Sloane MS 1621, ff. 52r–52v.

Unfortunately, Constantine did not reference his Arabic sources, so it is hard to know exactly to which works he had access. Yet descriptions of sugar by Arabic writers, such as Ibn Māsawayh (d. 875) and Al-Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), closely parallel the way sugar is used in the recipes of Sloane MS 1621. In Arabic texts, sugar is described as having warming effects and being beneficial for the stomach and intestines. The recipe on ff. 52r–v opens with Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum ('A remedy to make the stomach warm'). It also claims to be efficient against a painful stomach and for ‘anyone who cannot digest’.

Whether Abbot Baldwin and the monks of Bury St Edmunds had stomach troubles or merely a sweet tooth, it is clear that they had acquired the latest medical texts available in Europe, only decades after they had first been translated. Indeed, they might have gained knowledge of sugar before the saccharine substance itself had made it to England.

Thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation, and in conjunction with our partners at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you can now see the whole of Sloane MS 1621 on our new viewer, using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. This enables you to compare manuscripts side-by-side, to annotate images or to share them on social media, and to download them either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. You may also like to read Taylor McCall's article, Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, which discusses this and other manuscripts.


Emilia Henderson

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25 November 2018

Name that place

If you are an Anglo-Saxonist, you may have heard of two significant places: Brunanburh and Clofesho. The former is remembered as the site of a momentous battle, and the latter was the meeting place for a series of influential Church councils. But both places are enigmatic. Their locations have never been identified with any certainty, and have puzzled scholars for hundreds of years.

Today we ask you to help us name that place: we welcome suggestions at the foot of this blogpost or via our @BLMedieval Twitter account. To assist you, here are some clues from manuscripts currently on display in our once-in-a-generation exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

Bromborough market cross

Did the battle of Brunanburh take place in Bromborough, near the site of this market cross?



Brunanburh was the site of a significant battle in 937, fought between King Æthelstan of England and an alliance of kings from northern Britain: King Olaf of Dublin, King Constantine of Alba (now Scotland), and King Owain of Strathclyde, a British kingdom in the North-West.

One of the earliest sources for the battle is the Old English heroic poem The Battle of Brunanburh, as preserved in some manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The opening of the poem describes Æthelstan’s ‘long-lasting glory forged at the fighting with swords’ edges around Brunanburh’.

The beginning of the battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The beginning of the battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle detail

The beginning of the battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 141r

Other medieval accounts of the battle provide alternative spellings of its name. The oldest manuscript of Annales Cambriae records the battle as Bellum brune; while Symeon of Durham, writing in the 12th century, said it was fought at ‘Wendun, which is called by another name et Brunnanwerc or Brunnanbyrig’.

The entry for 937 in Annales Cambriae

The entry for 937 in Annales Cambriae, in the middle column: Harley MS 3859, f. 193r

Account of the battle in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio ecclesiae Dunelmensis

Account of the battle in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio ecclesiae Dunelmensis: Cotton MS Faustina A V, f. 61v

Brun-, the recurring element in all these place-names, is perhaps a personal name, a river name or the Old English or Old Norse word for spring or stream. The suffixes –burh/-wec and -dun are the Old English words for fortification and a low hill.

More than 30 different places have been suggested for the battle of Brunanburh. Considering that some of the forces that engaged King Æthelstan came from Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde, most suggestions have been located in northern England or southern Scotland. There are also plenty of references in the poem to warriors arriving or departing by ship. Here the poet paints a graphic image of the chief fleeing the battle:

There was put to flight

The Northmen’s chief, driven by need

To the ship’s prow with a little band.

(Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, Exeter, 2001)

It would make sense for the site to have had easy access to the coast or a riverbank. Some places proposed as the site of this famous battle include:

  • Bromborough on the Wirral
  • Burnswick, southern Scotland
  • Lanchester, County Durham

If you were to choose the site for a climactic Anglo-Saxon battle, where would it be?



If you're unable to identify Brunanburh, perhaps you might turn your attentions to identifying Clofesho. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, he described an important synod organised by Archbishop Theodore in 670. One outcome of this meeting was the decision to hold a council once a year at a place known as Clofesho. These councils provided the opportunities for bishops from distant locations to gather and make important decisions about the Anglo-Saxon Church.


Bede’s account of the origin of the tradition of holding a synod at Clofesho

Bede’s account of the origin of the tradition of holding a synod at Clofesho. ‘Clofaeshooh’ is mentioned in lines 2–3 in the left-hand column: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 100r

Over the next 150 years, Clofesho became a meeting place of great symbolic importance in the Anglo-Saxon Church. One of the most significant councils at Clofesho was held in 803, when it was confirmed that the archiepiscopal see of Lichfield would once again be classed as a bishopric. Lichfield had been promoted to the status of an archbishopric in 787, at the request of King Offa of Mercia. The charter produced at the council of Clofesho in 803 confirmed that Lichfield once again fell under the authority of Canterbury. This charter is currently on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.


Decree of the council of Clofesho, 803: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Despite its clear importance, scholars have not been able to identify Clofesho. Bede described the very first council held there, but he did not tell us anything about its location. Since it was used as a meeting place for the entire Anglo-Saxon Church, it makes sense for it to have been sited in a central location, perhaps in the kingdom of Mercia.

Modern places out forward as the site of Clofesho include Cliffe-at-Hoo, Abingdon, Tewkesbury and Hitchin. Another candidate is All Saints Church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire.

All Saints Church, Brixworth

All Saints Church, Brixworth

Many elements of the Anglo-Saxon building of All Saints Church, Brixworth, survive intact. Its size suggests that it must have been a place of great importance in the Anglo-Saxon period, but there is no mention of Brixworth in any early sources. The old version of the place-name, Briclesworda, is first recorded in the Domesday survey, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085. In Domesday Book, Brixworth occupied 9.5 hides with land for 35 ploughs, 2 mills and a meadow.

Breclesworda, Northamptonshire, in Great Domesday

Breclesworda, Northamptonshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2

One possibility is that, at some point during the period of Danish invasions, Clofesho was renamed Breclesworda. There are other examples of place-names changing in the Anglo-Saxon period. For example, Streaneshalch became Whitby and Medeshamstede became Peterborough. Did the same happen to Clofesho? Or are you able to suggest a different place for it?


Hitchin library

Was Hitchin the original site of Clofesho? This panel, featuring King Offa and the Hwicce, now stands outside the town's library


The British Library's exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, featuring glorious manuscripts and extraordinary artefacts, is on display in London until 19 February 2019.


Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 November 2018

‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart’: the Staffordshire Hoard in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart and those who hate you will flee from your face.’

So reads (in English translation) an inscription on an object in the famous Staffordshire Hoard, discovered by metal-detectorists in 2009. We are delighted that a selection of gold and silver treasure from that hoard can currently be seen in the British Library's landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. These items are on display in London thanks to the generosity of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard

Part of the Staffordshire Hoard: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The incredible Staffordshire Hoard, comprising around 4,000 items, was found in a field near the village of Hammerwich. The hoard's purpose and the precise date that it was deposited are open to question. Some experts have suggested that the hoard was buried in the ground before 675, although certain of the objects may have been around 100 years old at this time.

This area of Staffordshire was in the heartlands of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he described the military campaigns of Penda, the powerful Mercian king, against the neighbouring kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Almost all of the objects in the Staffordshire Hoard are martial and were most likely used by Anglo-Saxon warriors. Perhaps the hoard was brought together following battles between the armies of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia.

A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard

A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard contains an extraordinary number of hilt fittings taken from the decorated handles of swords and knives. The hoard also features gold and garnet strips which may have been mounted on other weapons or armour. It's also intriguing to note that many of the objects were deliberately damaged before they were buried in the ground. Perhaps that was done to render them useless or somehow to destroy their symbolic power.

Cross pendant from the Staffordshire Hoard

Cross pendant with central garnet and filigree decoration: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard also includes items with explicitly Christian connections. Shown above is an ornamental pectoral cross with a stunning garnet at the centre. It may have been used by a high-ranking cleric or a Christian nobleman. Another Christian object is this metal strip, with the aforementioned inscription from the Old Testament Book of Numbers (‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart and those who hate you will flee from your face’).

Inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

Inscribed strip with gem setting: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

One of the chief advantages of displaying parts of the Staffordshire Hoard in conjunction with other artefacts and manuscripts is that it underlines similarities in their decoration. For instance, many objects in the Staffordshire Hoard fuse together gold and garnets. The garnets were cut into specific shapes to fit into the pattern work, while some of the gold filigree, made from gold wire and twisted to look like little beads, is less than one millimetre thick. They were then fashioned into stylised animals or stretched out in thin ribbons of intertwined interlace.

Gold and garnet decoration was used in other metalwork on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. This can be seen, for example, in the Sutton Hoo sword-belt and belt buckle (on loan from the British Museum) and the Winfarthing pendant (on loan from Norfolk Museums Service), which were also found in the former territory of the kingdom of East Anglia.

The Sutton Hoo sword-belt

The Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum, BEP 1939,1010.10

Winfarthing pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum, 2017.519.6

Some of the interlace patterns in the Staffordshire Hoard also bear similarities to the decoration of Insular gospel books made in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. A particularly vivid example of this style of decoration is found in the Echternach Gospels, which has been loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The opening to the Gospel of Mark in the Echternach Gospels

The opening to the Gospel of Mark in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Latin 9389, f. 76r

The style of script and decoration of this gospel book suggests that it was produced in a scriptorium with strong Insular influences, possibly in Ireland, Northumbria or Echternach (in modern-day Luxembourg). The letters ‘IN’ on the page above are decorated with red and yellow interlace designs, and surrounded with miniature red dots. This design and colour palate is similar to the gold and garnet designs and gold filigree decoration of the Staffordshire Hoard.

Detail of decorated ‘IN’ in the Echternach Gospels

Detail of decorated ‘IN’ in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms latin 9389, f. 76r

We are very excited to have these fascinating objects from the Staffordshire Hoard in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The hoard bears witness to Mercian martial power in the 7th century: many of its objects were infused with Christian symbolism, and they drew on artistic trends witnessed across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider Insular world.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display in London until 19 February 2019. You can buy tickets here.


Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 November 2018

Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Today we are celebrating with our esteemed colleagues from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Together we have digitised and re-catalogued 800 medieval manuscripts from England and France. We have also created two bilingual web resources making these manuscripts available freely and interpreting their significance.

The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter

The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: British Library Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v.

In the summer of 2016 we began the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. The project was funded by The Polonsky Foundation, which is committed to promoting access to and dissemination of cultural heritage.  

This project brings together riches of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways, benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities opened up by the technological advances of digitisation.

Our Foundation promotes the preservation and transmission of cultural heritage, and is proud to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that have characterised the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation


The collections of medieval manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France rank amongst the finest and most important in the world. Together we have particularly strong holdings of manuscripts made in France and England before 1200. From these we chose 400 manuscripts from each Library in order to transform the availability of these primary sources. The manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including biblical, liturgical and theological works, reflecting the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200. Other topics include science, music and medicine, Classical and contemporary literature and works on history and law.

Screen shot of themes n the Project website

Themes in the curated website Medieval England and France, 700-1200, made in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.


Two web resources

All 800 manuscripts are now available on an innovative website hosted by the BnF: France et Angleterre : manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 / France and England: medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200. The website allows users to search manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to view and compare manuscripts side-by-side using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. Images may also be annotated or shared on social media, and may be downloaded either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. Searches by author, date and place of origin may also be made.

Screenshot of the new BnF Website

New website developed by the BnF to present the 800 manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

The British Library-hosted website presents a curated selection of these manuscripts highlighting various topics and manuscripts. Readers may explore themes, such as history, illumination, science and manuscript making. There are over twenty articles written by experts presenting and interpreting these manuscripts, in both English and French, together with individual descriptions and images of over 100 manuscripts. The website also features several videos exploring the context for these manuscripts and describing in detail how they were made. The site is an online exhibition to some of the amazing legacy that survives in hand-written medieval books.

Screenshot of the new British Library website

New curated website developed by the British Library to explore the illuminated manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.

Professor Julia Crick from King’s College London remarks that, “Yet again, we are indebted to The Polonsky Foundation for an act of generosity which allows scholars, students and the general public at large to encounter new aspects of the world of medieval manuscripts. This project spans crucial centuries of cultural contact and political rivalry between England and the European continent. The manuscripts in this collection display the aspirations of the elite, the glitter of and competition for the classical past and, most excitingly, the material remains of a burgeoning culture of books and learning which was multilingual, culturally variegated and which is still open to exploration and discovery. The two new websites significantly widen and enhance access to these manuscripts and will inspire future research and learning.

We have also produced a short film highlighting the background for the project and its achievements.


Cataloguing, Exhibition and a Book

All of the manuscripts have been re-catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscripts.

The opening of Psalm 51 from the Bosworth Psalter

The opening of Psalm 51 from the Bosworth Psalter, Canterbury or Westminster, Southern England, 3rd quarter of the 10th century: British Library Add MS 37517, f. 33r.

If online access to this amazing selection does not satisfy a desire for stunning images, there are also other ways in which to get guided access to the highlights. Several of the project manuscripts can be seen in person in the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (until 19 February 2019).

We have also brought together some of the project highlights in a book by Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200 (London: British Library, 2018), also published in French as Enluminures Médiévales: Chefs-d'oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200 (Paris: BnF Éditions, 2018).

Medieval Illuminations Book Cover

Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël (Front Cover).

We hope that the easy and convenient availability of this material will inspire researchers, teachers, students, artists and others to explore our shared history and heritage. We invite all our readers to immerse themselves in the stories these manuscripts tell and browse through the online articles and collection items. We are delighted to have opened digitally 800 medieval books for you to discover, research and enjoy.


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17 November 2018

Fantastic books and where to see them

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?

Portrait of the Evangelist St Luke in the Augustine Gospels

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.


Text page in the Moore Bede

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.


Carpet page in the Book of Durrow

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.


The opening of the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels

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.


The binding of the Cuthbert Gospel

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.


Portrait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus

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.


Display script in the Book of Nunnaminster

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.


King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care

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.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript B

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.


AEthelstan presenting the book to St Cuthbert in Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert

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.


Opening to the Gospel of Mark in the Coronation Gospels

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).


Beowulf manuscript

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.


Men driving cattle in the Old English Hexateuch

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.


Monsters in the Marvels of the East

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.


Self-portrait of St Dunstan kneeling before Christ in St Dunstan's Classbook

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.


Opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Trinity Gospels

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.


Treasure binding on the Judith of Flanders Gospels

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.


Portrait of Queen Emma in the Encomium

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).


Great Domesday Book

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.


The Utrecht Psalter

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

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14 November 2018

Medieval hipsters

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.

A group of clean-shaven clerics offering St Benedict a copy of his Rule

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.

The opening of Abbot Burchard’s Apologia de barbis with an intricate anthropomorphic initial including bearded faces

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).

Woden as a bushy-bearded god

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.

A drawing of nine bearded figures from the late-medieval period added at the end of Burchard’s ‘Defence’

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. 

A clean-shaven David holding Goliath by the beard before cutting off his head

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) — dreaming of having one’s own beard cut meant that something terrible would happen to you.

Dream prognostics in Latin with an Old English interlinear translation

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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