THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

22 February 2019

Through the looking glass

If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period. 

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Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15

One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.

The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.

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Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v

An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.

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Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r

Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators. 

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Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.

Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.

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Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r

Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r

We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.

 

19 February 2019

Reconstructing the Otho-Corpus Gospels

As our stunning Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition comes to an end, it's time to reflect on recent discoveries that illuminate this fascinating period of early medieval history, and on the new opportunities for learning more about the past. Archaeological discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard, help us to make a direct connection with 7th-century Mercia, even if we cannot be certain to whom these objects belonged or why they were buried. New advances in imaging science, such as that revealing erased manumissions of slaves in the Bodmin Gospels, as reported on this Blog, help us to uncover medieval people whose lives would otherwise be unknown to us.

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The lion of St Mark in the Otho-Corpus Gospels: British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

One manuscript that has probably not given up all its secrets is the so-called Otho-Corpus Gospels. That name is modern in origin, being derived from the two collections in which its twin halves now reside: the Otho press in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The two parts of this 8th-century Northumbrian gospel-book had been divided by the 16th century at the latest, with one coming into the hands of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), and the other being acquired a few decades later by Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631). The easiest way to compare them would be to bring them physically side-by-side, as demonstrated in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, when the Corpus portion was generously loaned for a short period to the British Library. But the usual separation of the manuscript is only one barrier to properly understanding it, since the Otho part was damaged severely by the Cotton fire in October 1731, leaving its parchment pages shrivelled and charred. Not only is the gospel-book no longer together, but it is no longer intact.

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The first surviving page of the Otho portion: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 1r

As part of the preparations for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Cotton MS Otho C V was digitised in full, thanks to funding provided by The Polonsky Foundation. This complements nicely the digitisation of Corpus Christi MS 197B by our colleagues in Cambridge. Users are now able to study both parts of this gospel-book from the comfort of their own offices or living rooms. But one further feature of this dual digitisation should be mentioned here, and it is that which perhaps offers the greatest potential for furthering our knowledge of this manuscript. The British Library manuscripts digitised for our recent project can now be viewed on a IIIF viewer, and the same is true for those at the Parker Library. This means that researchers can view the images of both portions of the gospel-book side-by-side, hopefully enabling us to make more connections between them.

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Even though the Otho portion is badly damaged, we can still tell that it was finely written and decorated: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 21r

Why is this important? In the case of the Otho part of the manuscript, we have only 64 leaves remaining, representing the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the 19th century, its pages were restored at the British Museum and inlaid in paper mounts, with pencil notes added in the margins to notify where the text had been identified. In the case of the Corpus Christi part, containing the gospels of Luke and John, the pages have been rearranged, as was Matthew Parker's frequent practice, which complicates investigation into them. Maybe in time their original organisation will be reconstructed, throwing new light on the manuscript's place of origin and its later use and ownership.

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The preface to the Gospel of Mark: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 25v

Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, Cotton MS Otho C V can be seen on the Universal Viewer or on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Thanks to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, their MS 197B can be seen on Parker on the Web, and you can read about it in this accompanying blogpost. We are delighted to be able to share this wonderful manuscript with you, and we hope that in time we will learn more of its secrets. 

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 February 2019

Explore our Anglo-Saxons webspace

Would you like to find out more about the Anglo-Saxons? Have you been mesmerised by our recent blockbuster exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, or are you doing research into some aspect of early medieval culture?

If so, you may be interested in the British Library's new webspace devoted to the Anglo-Saxons. Already published are a number of articles, on subjects as diverse as music, Anglo-Saxon women, and the Battle of Hastings, together with collection items and biographies. In the near future we intend to add more material, so (literally) please watch this space ...

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Many of the essays have been written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and Becky Hudson, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern. Becky has written articles exploring the earliest English speakers and Learning and education in Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, she has drawn upon sources ranging from the St Augustine Gospels to the Utrecht Psalter and a gold dinar of King Offa, in order to demonstrate the close and long-standing relationship between England and its European neighbours. Alison has examined the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Science and the natural world. In her article How was the kingdom of England formed?, she traces the background to the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century.

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A gold dinar of King Offa, reproduced by permission of the British Museum

Among the collection items described and illustrated on the site are manuscripts from the British Library's own collections, alongside books and artefacts loaned by other institutions to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Among the Library's manuscripts that are featured are the St Cuthbert Gospel, Bald's Leechbook and the Coronation Gospels; among the loans we might mention (to name a few) are the Binham Hoard, the Moore Bede and Codex Amiatinus.

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Codex Amiatinus, reproduced by permission of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, was returned specially to England for the first time in 1,300 years to be displayed at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The people featured on the Anglo-Saxons webspace include kings, queens, bishops, monks and hermits, from Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, to Alfred the Great. They have been selected in part because they are most prominent in the contemporary sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Encomium Emmae Reginae, and in part because they represent several layers of early medieval society.

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Emma of Normandy as depicted in the work entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’

We hope that you find our new webspace useful, and that it satisfies your curiosity or inspires you to learn more. The address is https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval