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07 July 2020

The 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket

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On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. On this day 800 years ago his body was translated (moved) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

Medieval manuscript illustrated with the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
The earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

Becket’s murder was recorded in a letter written by John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eyewitness to the event. A copy of this letter is included in an early collection of letters assembled by Alan, the prior of the Cathedral from 1179 –1186 and later abbot of Tewkesbury (d. 1202), where it is illustrated by the earliest known representation of the murder (Cotton MS Claudius B ii).

Becket rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a London merchant to serve as chancellor to Henry II (r. 1154–89) from 1154, before becoming archbishop in 1162. Thereafter, he clashed with the King in defence of the autonomy of the Church. Thomas fled into exile in France in 1164, returning to England in early December 1170. Upon his return, tensions with the King still were unresolved, and a few weeks later, four knights left Henry’s court in Normandy and forced themselves into the Archbishop’s presence.

Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register the Archbishop is at table when a messenger announces the arrival of the four knights, outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb, perhaps representing the later penitence of the knights.

Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 7r

In many English medieval calendars this translation date is included as a feast day. For example, the Luttrell Psalter made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell features an entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’. This entry escaped later censorship following the November 1538 Proclamation issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by which Becket was characterised as a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’ rather than a saint, and accordingly that ‘his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’ The date of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December in the Luttrell Psalter, however, was struck out by a single, rather discreet, line.

Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 12v

Another calendar in which the translation survives on 7 July is an early 15th-century example from the diocese of Norwich. Here the image is of Becket as a young man in a bishop’s mitre, holding a sword representing the weapon of his martyrdom together with a cross-topped staff.

 Represtation of St Thomas Becket in a calendar
Representation of St Thomas Becket from a folding calendar: Egerton MS 2724, f. 1r

To discover more about Thomas Becket, you can read our earlier blogposts about Becket’s translation, Becket's martyrdom and erasing references to Becket in manuscripts. The letter collection (Cotton MS Claudius B ii) was digitised thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, and you can view the manuscript's collection item page or read more about medieval saints in manuscripts on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 July 2020

Our latest list of digitised manuscripts

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Long-term readers of our Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2020. With the arrival of summer, we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 13th-century Book of Hours, showing an historiated initial of a man watching the sunrise from an open doorway.

An historiated initial 'D'(eus) with a man watching the sunrise, from a Book of Hours, c. 1260-70 (England, Oxford or West Midlands?): Egerton MS 1151, f. 38r (detail)

There are now over 3,600 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of July 2020:

PDF:  Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020

Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A page from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan, featuring an illustration of St Michael impaling a dragon and pulling a soul from its mouth.

St Michael the Archangel defeats the dragon and rescues a soul from its mouth, from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan (998–1018): Egerton MS 3763, f. 104v

During this period of Covid-19 lockdown, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since January 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions published over the last 6 months:

PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

A fragment of a papyrus made in the 2nd century BC, featuring a petition in Ancient Greek from a group of soldiers complaining about low pay.

A petition of soldiers, complaining to their commander about pay (Diospolis Parva (Hiou), Egypt, 169–168 BC): Papyrus 638, f. 1r

A 16th-century print of the Colosseum in Rome, featuring a cross-section of the oval amphitheatre, with a winged figure in the clouds holding a banner with a Latin inscription.

A print of the Colosseum in Rome from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Italy, 1538): Cotton MS Augustus III/2, f. 53r

You can also read about some of the most significant items that have been published online in the following blogposts:

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis, featuring an illustration of the arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, with decorated borders and an initial with ivy leaves in gold, red and blue.

The arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, from an illustrated manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Burney MS 257, f. 239v

We hope you enjoy exploring our digitised manuscripts!

 

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24 June 2020

Chyryse: a midsummer night's recipe

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Coinciding with the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June), midsummer was a time for celebrations both religious and secular in medieval society. These included church-going, holding pageants, lighting bonfires, singing, dancing, gathering flowers and feasting.

A taste of these medieval festivities survives in a recipe for chyryse, or cherry pudding, found in several medieval culinary collections. Some versions of the recipe specify that the cherries are to be picked on the feast of St John the Baptist, when they are at their best. The cherry harvest was closely associated with the festivities of midsummer and in medieval literature, the expression 'cherry time' was often used to signify short-lived good times.

Medieval manuscript illumination of a boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, from the Luttrell Psalter
A boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

For midsummer this year, I am experimenting with recreating chyryse from the British Library's copy of the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016, m. 5), a recipe book composed by Richard II’s chief cook around 1390. Medieval recipe books are not quite as user-friendly as modern ones, often providing no quantities, obscure ingredients and bafflingly vague instructions. This, however, is all part of the fun.

Medieval recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury
Recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury, Add MS 5016, membrane 5

The recipe

Take almaundes unblanched, waisshe hem, grynde hem, drawe hem up with gode broth. do þerto thridde part of chiryse. þe stones take oute and grynde hem smale. make a layour of gode brede & powdour and salt and do þerto. colour it with sandres so that it be stondyng, and florissh it with aneys and with cheweryes, and strawe þeruppon and serue it forth.

Take unblanched almonds, wash them, grind them, draw them up with good broth. Add a third part of cherries, take out the stones, and grind them small. Make a layour (thick sauce) of good bread and powder (spice mix) and salt and add. Colour it with sandalwood so that it is standing (thickened) and flourish it with aniseed and with cherries and strew on top and serve it forth.

Method

To make this recipe, I mixed together 100g ground almonds and 150ml red wine (the recipe calls for 'gode broth', i.e. animal stock, but some alternative versions use wine instead, which seems like a better option). I heated them gently in a pan. After removing the stones, I roughly pureed a large punnet of cherries with a hand blender and added them to the pan. I grated a slice of wholemeal bread to make breadcrumbs, which I added to the mixture along with a spice mix of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and salt (the recipe does not specify which spices, but this is an authentic medieval blend). Not having any sandalwood to dye it, I left out that step. I gently simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes until it thickened, then refrigerated it overnight. I served it with a garnish of aniseed and halved fresh cherries.

A photo of a bowl of chyryse, a purple mushy pudding garnished with cherries and aniseed
My modern recreation of chyryse, photo by the author

The verdict

Chyryse is like nothing I've eaten before, but I really like it. The mixture itself is not very attractive, although the garnish certainly helps. Its grainy texture is unlike most modern puddings, with semolina probably being the closest comparison. The strong fruity cherry flavour is warmed by the earthy spices. The aniseed is an especial winner, its liquorice kick perfectly complementing the mellow sweetness of the cherries. Once I'd got over its initial strangeness, I found chyryse to be a bewitching midsummer delight.

Medieval manuscript illumination of people harvesting cherries, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below
The cherry harvest, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below, Sloane MS 4016, f. 30r

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: this recipe was made in my own time and at my own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of this chyryse! ***

13 June 2020

Layers of meaning in the Floreffe Bible

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Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical communities reading the Bible understood it on more than one level. In this they were following the advice of the Church Fathers, who advocated interpreting the Bible morally and allegorically, in addition to literally. For example, in a prefatory letter to his Moralia in Job, Gregory the Great (d. 604) explained that understanding a text is like constructing a building:

For first we lay the historical foundation; then through typological signification we raise a citadel of faith in the structure of the mind; finally, through moral interpretation we cloth the building with colour.

The most sophisticated biblical illustrations incorporate layers of meaning into their designs in this way. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, this kind of complex composition was particularly popular in the Meuse valley, in modern day Belgium. This method, often with numerous inscriptions and biblical quotations embedded in the image, was employed to decorate metalwork caskets, crosses and reliquaries, in addition to books.

Depiction of an allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy in the Floreffe Bible
Allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Floreffe Bible,

One of the most elaborate and complex examples of this type of decoration in any medium occurs in a large two-volume Bible made in the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, c. 1170. The Bible is another ‘giant’ Romanesque Bible, measuring 475 x 330 mm, like the Worms, Stavelot and Arnstein Bibles explored on this blog recently. It is fully digitised and available online: Add MS 17737 and Add MS 17738.

The second volume begins with the book of Job illustrated with a stunning double-page painting. Parts of the image are straightforward literal renderings of verses from the first chapter of Job. For example, near the top of the left-hand page seven men and three women are seated together at a long table covered with different dishes. This party is made up of Job’s children: his seven sons ‘made a feast by houses, every one in his day. And sending, they called their three sisters, to eat and drink with them’ (Job 1:4).

Above the feasting scene, Job is shown offering a sacrifice to God, with the hand of God emerging making a sign of blessing. The text recounts that after each feast, Job would do this for his children ‘ne [forte] peccaverint filii mei et benedixerint Deo in cordibus suis’ (in case perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts, Job:1:5), as quoted on the scroll that he holds in his left hand.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above
The feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

In contrast, the images below this become increasingly layered in meaning. The central image depicts the three theological virtues, Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit in roundels. This corresponds to a moral interpretation of Job made by St Gregory in his Moralia in Job. St Gregory explained that Job’s three daughters are to be understood as the three theological virtues, and his sons as Seven Gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2.

The eighth roundel contains the right hand of the Lord, which proclaims Dextera Domini fecit virtutem (The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength, Psalm 117:16), and points directly below to a figure of Christ, with rays extending diagonally to twelve seated nimbed men. This image adds a further level of allegorical interpretation of the biblical text, in which the seven sons of Job are equated with the Apostles, who at Pentecost are filled with the sevenfold grace. (As explored by Anne-Marie Bouché, 'The spirit in the world: the virtues of the Floreffe Bible frontispiece: British Library, Add. Ms. 17738, ff. 3v-4r' in Virtue & Vice: The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane (Princeton, 2000), pp. 42-65.)

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

Below the Apostles is another interpretation of the seven virtues. The scene depicts the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy derived from Matthew 25:35-36 and Tobit 1:17, here illustrated by scenes of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the Corporal Acts of Mercy
The Corporal Acts of Mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

On the opposite page is an image of the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36). It is situated directly above a scene of the Last Supper conflated with Christ washing Peter’s feet. Like the facing page, numerous inscriptions interpret the images and their relationship to the forthcoming text. Directly above the two scenes a titulus explains that: ‘that which Moses veiled, behold the voice of the fathers reveals, and that which the prophets covered, Maria brought forth (Quem Moyses velat vox ecce paterna revelat. Quemq[ue] prophetia tegit est enixa maria).

Depiction of the Transfiguration and the Last Supper in the Floreffe Bible
The Transfiguration and the Last Supper, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 4r

This tour de force of biblical interpretation explored visually demonstrates the sophistication of the accompanying illustration to a grand monastic Bible.

To read more about the decoration of this Bible, see the recent post about the opening to the Gospel of St Mark.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 June 2020

The monumental art of the Stavelot Bible

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Around fifty years before the making of the Worms Bible, which we featured recently on the blog, another giant Bible was produced at the abbey of St Remaclus at Stavelot, not far from Liège, in modern-day Belgium. Both volumes of the awe-inspiring Stavelot Bible are digitised and available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.

The monk Goderannus recorded that he and brother Ernesto spent four years working on the Stavelot Bible, and he was precise about what had been achieved in that time. He stated that the writing, illuminating and binding (scriptura, illuminatione, ligatura) had all been completed in 1097.

Despite this specificity, scholars still disagree on whether the two monks (or Ernesto at least) were the artists as well as the scribes of this impressive work. Some speculate that the artists were paid laymen instead of monks, and hence were omitted from the long colophon. Moreover, the difference in style between initials and other painting included in the work suggests that more than two people may have been involved in their production—one scholar identified five different artists.

Christ in Majesty, his feet on a T-O map
Christ in Majesty, his feet on a ‘T-O’ map, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists in the corners, Add MS 28107, f. 136r

What is clear, however, is the quality and the sheer monumentality of the painting included in the Stavelot Bible. Its most famous image, which opens the New Testament, is the huge full-page vision of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. This painting is a powerful icon-like frontal presentation of Christ at the end of time. Christ’s feet rest on the globe of the world divided into three parts (a medieval ‘T-O’ map, of the orbis terrarum, which looks like the letter ‘T’ inside the letter ‘O’), and he holds a golden cross in his left hand. For contemporary viewers, this image may have recalled large scale paintings in church apses, as John Lowden suggested.

Decorated initial of St Luke at the beginning of his Gospel
St Luke at the beginning of the prologue to his Gospel, Add MS 28107, f. 161v

The tall standing or seated prophets and Evangelists depicted at the beginning of their texts are equally expressive and prepossessing. These include unusual standing Evangelists holding scrolls before the prefaces to their Gospels, such as the image of St Luke above.

Genesis initial ‘I’(n), small scenes depicted in roundels
Genesis initial ‘I’(n), with the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion, Deposition, Resurrection, and Christ in Majesty running upwards from the bottom, in the central medallions, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

Painting on a much smaller scale is featured in the Bible's historiated initials. The most complex symbolism is reserved for the long initial ‘I’ (In principio) of Genesis that opens the first volume of the Stavelot Bible. Many small pictures cluster in and around the initial, and depict not the Days of Creation, as is typical in Genesis initials, but rather a series of scenes that provide a visual commentary on the story of salvation.

The words In principio read downwards in the centre, but all of the image sequences begin at the bottom of the page. The central group of roundels start with the Annunciation and culminate with an image of Christ in Majesty at the top. The Crucifixion forms the central part of the composition, and all around are other images from both the Old and New Testaments.

Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels from the Genesis initial
Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

On the left side of the initial is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah building the Ark, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses receiving and then breaking the Tablets of the Law, below Christ preaching and angels. Related events fit in around these scenes, such as the Worshipping of the Golden Calf below Moses.

Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf from the Genesis initial
Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To the right of the central axis is an extended rare depiction of one of Christ’s parables, that of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6), in which the kingdom of heaven is likened to a householder who hires labourers to work in his vineyard at different times of the day. All around the medallions in which the hiring process is enacted the labourers are engaged in pruning and caring for the vines.

Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard from the Genesis initial
Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

This creative and unusual interpretation suggests a relatively high level of familiarity and understanding of the biblical text. In turn, this implies that if brothers Goderannus and Ernesto did not complete the illumination of the Bible themselves, they may have designed and supervised the work of those who did.

You can read more about the Stavelot Bible and find out about two other manuscripts from Stavelot in our previous blogposts. For another giant Romanesque Bible, see our recent blogpost on the Arnstein Bible.


Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Further reading

Wayne Dynes, The Illuminations of the Stavelot Bible (New York, 1978).

John Lowden, ‘Illustration in biblical manuscripts’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- ), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter (2012) pp. 446-81 (p. 454).

27 May 2020

The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters

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Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.

Donor portrait of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), holding a miniature church
King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who is said to have founded St Albans Abbey: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 3v

The Benefactors' Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII) was begun around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity, established by Abbot Thomas de la Mare (r. 1350–96). According to the preface, anyone who made a donation could be admitted into the confraternity, which granted them a lavish induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in this prestigious book.

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey's past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793 (pictured above). Spaces were also left for future entries, and the abbey continued to add the details of new benefactors into the 16th century.

Donor portrait of Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman, holding a charter
Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 90r

The job of compiling the register from the Abbey's old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422), the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum, and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler who waived the cost of the pigments in return for his place among the Abbey's benefactors (f. 108r).

Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book
Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy: kings and queens first, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally laypeople. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included, from members of the royal family and knightly aristocracy, to London burghers, fishmongers, millers and masons.

Donor portrait of Nigel the miller holding a money bag
Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 96r

Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.

Donor portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent, fashionably dressed and holding her gift of a necklace
Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385), who gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 7v
Donor portrait of Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, wearing a suit of armour and kneeling
Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, who gave wine liberally (1417): Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 142v

Where details of a person's appearance were known, it seems that Strayler took care to include them. For example, abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), a gifted astronomer who created an extraordinary astronomical clock for the Abbey, is depicted with a blemished face, reflecting the fact that he was said to have suffered from leprosy.

Portrait of Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock
Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 20r

Similarly, a man named Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynnus ye Swarte) who, together with his wife Wynflæd, gave land to the abbey in the time of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), is depicted with dark skin.

Donor portrait of Æthelwine the Black and his wife Wynflæd holding a charter
Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynus ye Swarte) and his wife Wynflæd, who gave land to the abbey in 11th century: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 89v

Just as fascinating as the benefactors are their gifts, which richly evoke the splendour of medieval material culture. Besides land, property and money, people gave treasures such as jewellery, vestments, chalices, bowls, horns, bells, statues, precious stones and books.

Donor portrait of Petronilla de Benstede holding her gift of a round super-altar
Petronilla de Benstede who gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver on which St Augustine of Canterbury was said to have celebrated: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 101v

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans, we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John Berkamsted who 'did nothing memorable in his life' (nichil memorabile fecit in vita).

Portrait of Abbot Ealdred with a dragon at his feet
Ealdred, abbot of St Albans in the 11th century, who filled in the cave of a dragon: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 12v
Portrait of Abbot John Berkamsted wringing his hands in anguish
John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans (d. 1302), who 'did nothing memorable in his life', Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 19r

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey's community for centuries.

Now you can immerse yourself in this captivating book too: the manuscript is newly digitised and available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 May 2020

It's tournament season!

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On the 21st of May 1390, during a three-year truce in the Hundred Years’ War, the French knights, Boucicaut, de Roye and Saint Pi, set up three luxurious crimson tents in a spacious field between Calais and the Abbey of Saint-Inglevert. They issued a challenge to all comers for a friendly trial of arms lasting 30 days. Many English knights attended, one being Sir John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, who was highly applauded for his contests against Boucicaut and de Roye. Afterwards, Huntingdon asked to be allowed one more challenge for the love of his lady, but this was not permitted by the rules. Over four days of tilting, more than 40 challenges were issued, each one described in detail by the writer Jean Froissart in his Chronicles.

The tournament of Saint-Inglevert in the Harley Froissart
The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r

Chivalric tournaments were a regular form of aristocratic entertainment from the 12th century onwards, often accompanying great occasions such as coronations or marriages. These simulated battles were well-planned and choreographed events where a knight could show off his skills. They also served as a training ground for real warfare.

The warmer months were the popular season for tournaments, as shown by this image of the activity for the month of June from a 16th-century Book of Hours known as the Golf Book. Calendars in these books often contain miniatures of the labours of the months, cycles of largely agricultural activities such as reaping and ploughing that were carried out throughout the year, but here sports and games supplement these traditional scenes. The miniature shows knights jousting and sword-fighting on horseback in a crowded arena. Below the picture is a border scene of figures riding on wooden hobby horses and holding toy windmills, perhaps intended as a parody of the tournament above.

A tournament before a city
A tournament before a city, workshop of Simon Bening, in the Golf Book, Add MS 24098, f. 23v

A winter tournament was held to celebrate the coronation of Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV of France in February 1403, in which Sir Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, fought as her champion. This drawing from his illustrated biography, the recently digitised Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, shows him wearing a helmet with the Warwick emblem, a bear with ragged staff, while the queen points to him from the balcony.

Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament
Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament, in the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 3r

The medieval travel narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville describes a tournament in Constantinople, watched by the Byzantine emperor. The event is depicted in this elaborate scene based on a Czech translation of the Travels, illustrated in Bohemia in the early 15th century.

A tournament in Constantinople with jousting from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
A tournament in Constantinople with jousting, in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Add MS 24189, f. 15v

Some of the most fabulous images of martial display are from manuscripts of courtly romance literature, which provided inspiration for the real events, with medieval knights doing their best to emulate Arthurian super-heroes like Sir Lancelot. This scene is from the romance of Méliadus about the chivalric deeds of Tristan’s father. In one episode, Méliadus falls in love with the queen of Scotland when he sees her passing in a magnificent procession on her way to a tournament. He takes part, defeating numerous challengers and winning the queen’s admiration. He is usually portrayed bearing the Neapolitan arms in this manuscript, which was copied and decorated for the king of Naples, Louis de Tarente, who founded the first Italian order of knighthood, the Nodo (knot).

Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching
Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching, in Méliadus, Add MS 12228, ff. 214v-215r

Medieval tournaments usually consisted of a melée, or mock combat between two teams, preceded by jousting between individuals, as depicted in this miniature from the French romance of Ponthus et Sidoine. To cut a long story short, Ponthus is heir to the kingdom of Galicia and one of Hoel’s knights. He falls secretly in love with Sidoine, who is promised in marriage to the Duke of Burgundy, and he has to flee to Britain to escape her father’s wrath. Returning to Brittany on his way to win back his kingdom, he finds that Sidoine’s wedding to the duke is about to be celebrated with a tournament. Disguised as a white knight, he kills the Duke in a joust, winning Sidoine’s hand. He regains his kingdom and the pair rule as joint monarchs of Galicia and Brittany. This plot is almost identical to the English romance of King Horn, though most names have been changed.

Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book
Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Somewhere between medieval legend and recorded history is a work known as Le Petit Jean de Saintré. It claims to be a chivalric biography, and there was indeed a knight by this name who lived about a hundred years before it was written, but the author pays little attention to historical facts. The young Jean is educated in the values of knighthood by the Dame des Belles-Cousines, who instructs him on a variety of subjects from the seven deadly sins to personal grooming. He travels around the courts of Europe, winning fame at many tournaments, but in a surprising plot twist at the end, the virtuous Dame falls prey to a lusty monk, much to the dismay of her earnest young champion.

Jean de Saintré in a tournament
Jean de Saintré in a tournament, Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 32v

But not everyone took tournaments so seriously. In this manuscript border, two men in wicker armour tilt at each other while riding on sheep, and one falls clumsily to the ground. Looks like quite the baa-lancing act!

Royal_ms_1_e_v_f171r-(detail)

Men jousting on sheep in an illuminated border from a book of Gospels, Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

Chantry Westwell

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20 May 2020

Remembering Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

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This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.

Spong Man on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)

Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.

Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.

An illuminated page from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Moore Bede

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library

The opening page of Textus Roffensis

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)

Round the corner, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels shared a case.

A decorated page from the Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin

A decorated page from the Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)

In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)

Codex Amiatinus on display in the exhibition

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)

The room focusing on Mercia included the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, displayed next to King Offa’s gold dinar.

The Lichfield Angel on display in the exhibition

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

The gold dinar of King Offa

Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights of the room on the West Saxons were the Alfred Jewel displayed directly in front of a case containing the copy of the Pastoral Care that Alfred sent to Worcester.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)

A page from King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care

The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)

The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.

The four poetic codices on display

The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)

Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A page for Yorkshire in Great Domesday

Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)

Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library

An opening of two pages from the Harley Psalter

The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603

A page from the Eadwine Psalter

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)

Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.

 

Claire Breay

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