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

25 December 2019

Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle

It is midnight on 24th December in the great city of Paris, sometime in the last quarter of the 13th century. Paris is the most populous city in Europe with around 200,000 residents, and it is the centre of learning, government and commerce in France. Tonight all is quiet in the city's many ports, markets, workshops, lecture halls and council chambers, but the sound of chanting is rising from the churches, filling the cold night with warm music. Within the walls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the clergy of the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle are celebrating the feast of the Nativity from a beautiful new book.

A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. In the lower half of the left column is a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r

The book is a Gospel Lectionary, a collection of the Gospel passages to be read during the mass throughout the year. They are arranged in calendar order, beginning with the season of Advent. The Gospel readings for each day of the year were established in the early Middle Ages and, with a few local variations, were traditional throughout the churches of Western Europe. Like the entire service, the readings are all in Latin.

At Christmas, three masses are performed throughout the day. The reading for Midnight Mass is Luke 2:1-14, which tells how Joseph and Mary travelled to the city of Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger. Meanwhile, shepherds watching their flocks were visited by an angel, who announced to them the birth of Christ and explained where to find him.

As the deacon reads the words, he can see the events delicately illustrated in the decorated letter that opens the reading. Almost every one of the readings in this luxurious lectionary begins with an illustrated letter, 262 in total. The letters, known as ladder initials, are slender and towering, divided into horizonal tiers and topped with gothic architectural features, much like the magnificent building for which the manuscript was made.

A close-up of the decorated initial from the last picture. It contains a Nativity scene in the upper half and the annunciation to the shepherds in the lower half.
Decorated initial for the reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r (detail)

The upper level of the letter shows the Nativity scene—Mary reclining in bed, Joseph sitting behind, the baby Jesus lying in a high altar-like manger being nuzzled by the ox and the ass. The lower level shows the surprised shepherds and equally surprised sheepdog encountering the angel, who points urgently up to the Nativity above. The top of the initial features alternating Gothic pinnacles and gables, similar to the distinctive exterior of Sainte-Chapelle (below).

The exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent chapel with elaborate Gothic architecture.
Sainte-Chapelle, north facade with alternating pinnacles and gables. (François Deneux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The right column contains a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v

After Midnight Mass, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle go to bed, their heads filled with the joyful words and bright images. Later, the community returns to the church for the second service of the day, the Dawn Mass. The reading continues with Luke 2:15-20, in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem, find the Holy Family and glorify God.

A close-up of the initial from the previous image. The upper half shows the Nativity scene and the lower half shows the shepherds praising God.
Decorated initial for the reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v (detail)

The decorated letter shows the Nativity in the upper scene, almost but not quite the same as before. Mary has now crossed her arms, and with her wistful expression she seems to illustrate the line of Luke 2:14, 'Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart'. She is also now covered by a blue quilt with a red lining, perhaps Joseph's cloak from the previous scene. On the lower level, the shepherds are praising God, two of them reverently raising their arms and one clutching his hands to his heart. Their arrival is signified by the gothic architectural structure under which they now stand. With its pointed arch containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion, the structure closely resembles a design that is repeated along the lower walls of Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel (below).

An interior wall of Sainte-Chapelle decorated with a row of pointed arches.
Sainte-Chapelle, upper chapel, dado of pointed arches each containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion (Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The entire height of the right column is filled with a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The third and most important mass of Christmas, distinguished with the largest and most elaborate decorated initial in the lectionary, was celebrated during the day. The reading is John 1:1-14, 'In the beginning was the Word', which describes how the Word of God created the world and then became flesh in the person of Christ.

In the decorated initial, the six days of Creation, the seventh day of divine rest and the Crucifixion are represented inside barbed quatrefoils. The scenes emphasise the message of the Gospel reading, adding the solemn reminder that Christ's human birth meant that he could die a human death, and so achieve salvation for humanity. The slender column of quatrefoil medallions is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle's soaring windows with their panels of geometric glasswork (below).

Interior view of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent gothic chapel with very high windows featuring geometric stained glass.
Sainte-Chapelle, interior facing east with soaring windows (Pierre Poschadel / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As the service comes to an end, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle gaze around the chapel. The winter sunshine is streaming through the stained-glass windows and the lofty vaults are pointing the way to heaven. Those within sight of the book can see sacred history minutely represented inside letters that echo the architecture of the building. For a moment, the events of the Christmas story seem be to present within the gothic splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Everyone is filled with wonder as they leave the chapel and head to their Christmas feasts.

A detail of the previous decorated initial, showing a barbed quatrefoil medallion containing a Crucifixion scene.
The Crucifixion in the decorated initial for the reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The Sainte-Chapelle Gospel lectionary is currently on view as part of the Sacred Texts display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, open on the readings for the dawn and daytime masses on Christmas Day. Visit us to see this festive treat in person (check our seasonal opening hours).

Merry Christmas from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Section of the British Library!

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 December 2019

Two Peters of Notre-Dame

It has been eight months since tragedy struck Notre-Dame, the iconic cathedral of Paris, when fire broke out on its roof on 15 April 2019. The cornerstone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1163 (though construction on the site may have begun as early as 1160) and it was fully completed around 1250. But the presence of a religious community headed by the Bishop of Paris on the Île de la Cité – the island in the Seine at the heart of Paris – was already long-established. There had been a church or a cathedral there since possibly as early as the 4th century.

Moreover, at the time of the building of the new Gothic cathedral, the cathedral school of Notre-Dame enjoyed a far-reaching reputation, largely due to outstanding scholars such as Peter Lombard (d. 1160) and Peter Cantor (d. 1197). This resulted in close connections between the influential intellectual sphere of Paris and the English ecclesiastical and scholastic elite. Some of these connections are evident in surviving manuscripts that have been digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project

Large decorated initial C on a blue, square background, within which are two male human figures. The man on the left is seated, bearded and holding a scroll, and the other person is standing to his left and facing him.
Initial 'C(um omnes)', with a seated figure possibly representing Peter Lombard teaching a student, introducing the prologue to his Gloss on the Psalms: South-eastern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 54229, f. 3r

12th-century Paris was celebrated throughout Europe as the leading place for the study of theology and the liberal arts. One of the personalities that inspired this acclaim was the theologian Peter Lombard (d. 1160) . It was also largely due to him that the cathedral school of Notre-Dame became one of the main schools of the emerging University of Paris.

Originally from Lombardy in north-western Italy, Peter initially lacked any influential French contacts or relations. But by 1145 he had made such a name for himself as a teacher of theology that he was invited to be the magister (‘master’ or ‘teacher’) of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, and was appointed as Bishop of Paris shortly before his death.

A page of text in two columns, with text in red ink in both the outer and inner margins.
Peter Lombard’s commentary for Psalm 97 (98) beginning with a large blue initial 'C(antate Domino)', while the text of the Psalm itself is written in the margin in red: England, second half of the 12th century, BnF, Latin 17271, f. 189r

Peter’s most influential work, the Four Books of Sentences, became the standard theology textbook for much of the Middle Ages, but his commentaries on the Psalms were also exceptionally widely circulated. The speed with which his works were disseminated is illustrated by the two copies of his commentary on the Psalms digitised by the Polonsky England and France project (Add MS 54229 and BnF, Latin 17271) which were made in England, possibly during Peter’s own lifetime or shortly after his death. You can read more about the innovations in page layout that Peter Lombard’s commentary inspired in this article about the tradition of Glossed Psalters.

A page of text in two columns, beginning with a large, red, decorated initial.
Decorated initial 'V(erbum)' beginning the Verbum abbreviatum of Peter Cantor: Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 35180, f. 3r

During the first phase of the building of the new Notre-Dame cathedral, another exceedingly influential theologian called Peter became closely associated with the cathedral chapter. It is unclear when he arrived in Paris to teach, but around 1183 he had become the Cantor of Notre-Dame, and is therefore known as Peter Cantor, or Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). The position of Cantor was the second highest in rank of the members of the cathedral chapter. The Cantor’s work involved managing the activities of the choir: for example, supervising liturgical services and teaching the choristers. However, based on documentary evidence of his activities, it seems that Peter mainly focused on teaching theology and engaging in church government.

In the 1190s Peter assembled his teachings on practical morality developed during his long career as a theology lecturer into the work Verbum abbreviatum (roughly ‘Abridged sayings’). This text quickly became popular throughout Europe and almost 100 copies are known to have been in circulation during the medieval period.

Detail of a page of text in two columns, focusing on the explicit (that is, ending statement) written in red in the right-hand column.
The explicit of the Verbum abbreviatum written in red; southwestern England (Tewkesbury?), 4th quarter of the 12th century-1st quarter of the 13th century, Cotton MS Claudius E I, f. 173v

Two manuscripts containing the Verbum abbreviatum (Add MS 35180 and Cotton MS Claudius E I) were copied in England and are especially early examples of the text. Indeed, the oldest of the two (Cotton MS Claudius E I) might have been copied as early as the year of Peter Cantor’s death. This early date is suggested by the ending statement, or explicit, of the text:

‘[Here] ends the Verbum abbreviatum of Master Peter, the foremost Chanter of Paris, afterwards a novice of Longpont, in which place he died [as a] novice.’ 

(Explicit verbum abbreviatum magistri Petri primus cantoris Parisiensis, postea novicii Longipontis, in quo novicius defunctus est.)

This refers to the fact that Peter Cantor was elected dean of the cathedral chapter of Reims in 1196, but on his way there he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Longpont.  While there he became ill and died in January 1197. The precise details are unclear, but this explicit seems to suggest that shortly before his death he joined the Cistercian community at Longpont but died before he could take his vows.

Perhaps this news had been recently received by the scribe of the manuscript. In any case, it shows that details about the author, as well as copies of his texts, could spread quickly across the Channel to England.

          Emilia Henderson
          @minuscule_eth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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19 December 2019

Renard the Fox, rebel and mischief-maker

The British Library's new family-friendly exhibition, Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature's Young Rebels, features some of the most lovable young hell-raisers in fiction. They include Matilda, Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and a host of animal characters, from Zog the Dragon to the beast in Billy and the Beast.

Literary rebels and mischief makers have been around for a very long time and one of the best known is an animal — Renard the Fox. He is a cunning prankster who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his own tricks.

A fox and a crow in a tree, dropping its piece of cheese

A fox persuading the crow to drop its cheese, in an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Renard persuades the crow to sing and drop the cheese he is holding, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 33r

The Renard stories are part of a long tradition of animal fables across Indo-European cultures and languages, from Afghanistan to Zaragoza. Other famous examples include the Sanskrit Panchatantra (around AD 300) and the classical Aesop’s Fables. The Roman de Renart, a French cycle of poems, became so popular that the original word for fox, ‘goupil’, was replaced by ‘renart’ in Middle French (it derives from the German ‘Raginhard’, meaning brave). An expression of the comical and satirical spirit of the time, the Roman de Renart parodies aspects of courtly literature, aristocratic refinement and religious hypocrisy. One of the British Library's illuminated copies, containing 14 of the tales and 13 colour miniatures, has recently been digitised and is now available online.

A crowing cockerel, on a page from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Chanticleer the cockerel, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 13r

In one of the most popular medieval tales, Renard manages to sneak into a chicken enclosure. The hens see him and scatter, but Chanticleer the cockerel, whose bravado exceeds his common sense, ignores the threat. Renard immediately sets about flattering him, calling him ‘Master Chanticleer’ and ‘cousin’, and persuading him to demonstrate his beautiful voice. Stretching his neck, both eyes closed, Chanticleer crows with all his might, a perfect opportunity for Renard to seize him by the throat and run off. However, the wily fox is caught out when Chanticleer encourages him to shout insults at the farmer giving chase. He opens his mouth and the cockerel escapes. Renard later plays a similar trick on the crow. The story of Chanticleer was later adapted by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales as the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.

Scenes of foxes and cockerels are sometimes found in the margins of religious and scholarly manuscripts, like this volume of scholastic texts produced in a Paris workshop.

A detail of a fox with a cockerel in its mouth

The whole page of the manuscript, with the fox holding the cockerel in its mouth in the upper margin

A fox with a cockerel in his mouth, in the upper margin: Burney MS 275, f. 336r

In the lower margin of a Psalter, a cockerel sings from a book on a music stand, watched closely by a fox. This mirrors the religious scene above it, showing three monks singing at a lectern.

A cockerel singing to a fox, below a decorated initial of three monks singing

‘Let us sing to the Lord a new song’, Psalm 95 in the 'Oscott Psalter': Add MS 50000, f. 146v

In another famous episode, Renard the Fox is present at the court of King Noble, the Lion, and is accused of serious crimes against his fellow animals. He is sentenced to be hanged. But Noble falls seriously ill and Renard sets out to try to redeem himself by finding a cure. He steals a bag of herbal remedies from a sleeping pedlar and, having performed an examination on the king, promises to heal him provided he is given the skin of a wolf, the antlers of a stag and the fur of a cat. The outcome is that Noble is cured, Renart is restored to favour, Isengrin the wolf is skinned, Brichemer the stag is de-horned and Tibert the cat is lucky to escape. This story is illustrated in the margins of a book of canon law known as the Smithfield Decretals, a medieval masterpiece decorated with over 600 illustrations on subjects varying from saints’ Lives to romances.

A fox feeling the lion's pulse

A wolf being skinned by two foxes

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f055r

(1) A fox with a staff and pouch feels the pulse of a lion; (2) a wolf is skinned by two foxes; (3) above, a fox with a pilgrim bag and staff; below, a smiling fox sets off, leaving slaughtered creatures behind him (right); the fox bows to a lion, offering him a dead goose and money bag (centre), in the ‘Smithfield Decretals’: Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 54r, 56v, 55r

Likewise, in Spiegel der Weisheit, a collection assembled in German for Albrecht IV, Duke of Austria (1395–1404), there is a story of a fox going on a pilgrimage, illustrated in this manuscript from Salzburg.

A fox and other animals, about to set off on pilgrimage

A fox, setting off on a pilgrimage, refusing the companionship of the watch-dog, lion, peacock and others, and instead choosing the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, young hound, and the ant, Spiegel der Weisheit: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

Our free Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition abounds with tales of young literary rebels, following in the tradition of Renard the Fox. It is on at the British Library until 1 March 2020, and is well worth a visit this holiday season.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 December 2019

Troy story 2

We recently blogged about the Greek manuscripts that tell the tale of the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which ended in the destruction of the great city of Troy. We learned how this relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (if you haven’t already, catch up with Part 1 of this blog post). Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.

These blog posts are written to coincide with the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎), which features seven ancient and medieval manuscripts from the British Library. Check out the exhibition to learn more and to see these manuscripts in person.

A Renaissance manuscript with a large initial 'C' containing a picture of Aeneas, in classical-style armour, carrying a elderly man and leading a little boy by the hand.
A historiated initial showing Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his young son: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 73v

In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.

The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas' line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.

Picture from a Renaissance manuscript showing the fight between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus is on the ground and Aeneas is impaling him through the throat. They are surrounded by warriors watching the duel.
Aeneas killing Turnus: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 227v

Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain's pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.

Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas' great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called 'New Troy', which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.

A text page from a medieval manuscript with a city scape drawn faintly in the lower margin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History Of The Kings Of Britain: Royal Ms 13 A III, f. 14r

New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.

Text page from a medieval manuscript with an elaborate border of foliate and a miniature of knights fighting on horseback
John Lydgate, Troy Book, the opening to Book 3 with a miniature of Hector slaying Patroculus: Royal Ms 18 D II, f. 66v

The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.

Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.

A medieval manuscript with a double-page miniature of ships attacking a walled city.
Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (second redaction), the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea: Stowe Ms 54, ff. 82v-83r

From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times. Discover more about this dramatic myth and view these manuscripts in the British Museum’s  exhibition Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎).

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

12 December 2019

Troy story

For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.

The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.

Men drag a giant horse statue into a walled city
The Trojan Horse: Italy, 1480s, Kings MS 24, f. 73v

However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.

What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.

A print of a stone sculpture of the head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, curly beard and hair
Engraving of a bust of Homer found at Baiae in 1780: Burney MS 86, f. v verso

The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.

Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.

A wooden board inscribed with Greek writing
Eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century AD, Add MS 33293

A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 13 of the Iliad: 1st century AD, Papyrus 732 (3)

Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 3 of the Odyssey: 1st century AD, Papyrus 271 (2)

These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.

This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.

Manuscript page in Greek, with lots of notes in the margins and between the lines of text
School-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, the 'Townley Homer': Eastern Mediterranean, probably 1059, Burney Ms 86, f. 240v

Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Read part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

04 December 2019

Medieval bookbindings: from precious gems to sealskin

This blog tends to focus on the inside of the Library’s collection items, on their varied texts and remarkable illustrations. But the physical outside of a manuscript can be just as intriguing.

Most medieval and early modern manuscripts no longer have their original bindings. The earlier the manuscript, the rarer it is that the binding survives. The binding is a book’s first defence against wear and tear, dirt and water damage. Even if it is kept clean and safe, the frequent opening of a book puts pressure on, and eventually wears out, the binding supports. Additionally, many manuscripts have been rebound in modern times by their later owners, who often wanted their entire collection to have the same bindings. As a result, original or near-contemporary medieval bindings that still survive are rare.

The type of high status binding that would have been the very rarest at the time of production sometimes survives from the early medieval period. These deluxe bindings are known as treasure bindings, because of their lavish and high-quality materials and craftsmanship. Excitingly, several early medieval treasure bindings are among the manuscripts digitised as part of the Polonsky Project. Read all about their decorations of carved ivory, precious metals and gems, in the article about medieval bindings on the Polonsky Project website.

Lower board of a binding made of dark brown wood and with clearly visible cord of lacing in a zig-zag pattern along the right-hand edge.
Lower cover with exposed wooden board: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

However, the humbler medieval bindings that still survive can be just as exciting. For example, we have an early binding of a copy from the early 9th century of the so-called Commentarii notarum tironianarum (read more about this manusctipt in a previous blogpost on antique shorthand in Carolingian books). It might not be the original binding, but it was probably made no more than two centuries after the manuscript that it protects.

Spine of a book seen straight-on, with visible endband at the top and three lines of sewing supports, evenly spaced and horizontal across the spine, connecting the gatherings of the text block to the boards also visible.
Exposed spine showing the sewing supports: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

The date can be determined because the process of attaching the boards is typical of the Carolingian method, which was popular during the 8th to 12th centuries. For this manuscript, the method of board attachment is visible because the whitish leather that once covered both wooden boards and the spine is partially lost. The exposed lower board and spine makes it easy to study the pattern of the lacing (the cords that are threaded through the inner edges of the wooden boards) and the sewing supports (the way that those cords were attached to the gatherings of parchment that make up the text block). As a result, it provides a good opportunity for studying the otherwise covered parts of an early binding.

Egerton_ms_2951!1_fblefr
Upper part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

 

Inner cover of parchment binding made from a manuscript leaf, light beige in colour, with the text running perpendicular to the binding, and the now detached leather lacing strips visible in the inner edge and sticking up slightly from the surface of the parchment.
Inside of the lower part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

Another relatively common – and relatively low-cost – medieval way to cover manuscripts was to reuse leaves from another manuscript no longer considered useful. This is the kind of binding that was used to cover the collection of poems written in late 12th century, now Egerton MS 2951. At some point after the mid-14th century, the collection was given a ‘limp’ parchment binding made from a bifolium of a manuscript of the Gospel of St John written during the latter half of the 14th century. The binding is now removed and kept separately, but the old strips of alum-tawed leather that were used for the lacing are still visible on the insides of the covers.

Upper cover of a binding in dark brown leather with a patch of darker brown fur still visible in the upper third, and with three small metal bosses in the two upper and the lower right corner.
Upper cover with metal bosses: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century.

 

Lower cover of binding in dark brown leather with some patches of darker fur visible at the top and in the middle of the bottom half, with two metal bosses in the upper and lower right corners, as well as a copper roundel inscribed with the title of the text in the middle.
Lower cover with metal bosses and a copper roundel inscribed ‘GENESIS GLO[SATUS]’: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century. 

Sometimes surviving medieval bindings were made with more unusual materials. For instance, the binding of a 12th-century glossed book of Genesis (Add MS 63077), which is later than the manuscript it protects.  The metal furnishings – the metal bosses still surviving on both covers, and the inscribed copper so-called ‘title window’ of the lower cover – are characteristic of Gothic bindings. Fixtures like these started becoming common by the early 14th century. What is uncommon about this Gothic binding, however, is that the still furry leather used to cover it might be made from sealskin!

Next time you check out a digitised manuscript, don’t forget to scroll to the images of the binding – it might be a rare medieval one.  

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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More information about medieval bookbinding:

‘Medieval Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods, and models’, Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library (2013), see Traveling Scriptorium blog by the Yale University Library: <https://travelingscriptorium.library.yale.edu/2013/07/17/bookbinding-terms-materials-methods-and-models/>

‘Bookbinding – Parts’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOBTrua1eH0, (2016), by Prof. Ana B. Sánchez-Prieto, part of the course ‘Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe’, by the universities of Colorado (USA) and Complutense of Madrid (Spain), see platform on www.coursera.org

 

23 November 2019

Happy anniversary to the Polonsky Project

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Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of our collaborative interpretative and digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  A year ago we met in Paris as part of a three-day international conference to celebrate two new bilingual websites that provide unprecedented access to some of the riches of our two national collections.  Thanks to generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation, each Library digitised 400 manuscripts made in either England or France before the year 1200.  You can view all 800 of them on a website hosted by the BnF, and if you wish, select two or more to examine side by side (view the digitised manuscripts on the BnF website).  

An image from a medieval manuscript, which depicts a robed man sitting at a desk, writing with a quill pen and a knife
A portrait of St Dunstan: Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

A second website, also fully bilingual, is hosted by the British Library (view the BL's interpretative website).  Here you can read 30 articles on various topics, such as English manuscript illumination, French manuscript illuminationmedicine, or history. Or, watch videos of Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. We also commissioned two animated films based on the story of the crane and the story of the whale from a medieval bestiary manuscript.  Some of the most popular films have been those on how to make a manuscript, commissioned from artist and calligrapher Patricia Lovett, with viewers spending an average of nearly 10 minutes on this topic. There’s also a film produced by the BnF, which explains the background to the project.

Taken together, over half a million individual pages have been viewed by people all over the world.  Early English manuscripts have been particularly popular.  We know that you are loyal viewers, too, with over 30% returning for another visit to the interpretative website, and with many of you reporting how you are using the resources in your teaching, or for your own research. We love to hear how you’ve been using the website and which features you’ve particularly enjoyed, so please let us know in the comments field below.  

We’ve received some great press coverage, including this BBC History podcast on the wonders of the Middle Ages, and a review in Hyperallergic. We have also been featured in La Revue Française de généalogie (April 2019), Les Veillées des Chaumières (May 2019), and Femme Actuelle Jeux (May 2019).

A detail from a medieval Bible manuscript, with an image of Christ and the Virgin Mary inside a decorated letter O
Christ in dialogue with the Virgin Mary, from the Chartres Bible: Chartres, 1146-1155, BnF Latin 116, f. 12r

The first printing of our project book by curators Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, has sold out, and has just been reprinted.  It is also available as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200.  Charlotte Denoël and Francesco Siri are currently editing the Paris conference proceedings, and Charlotte Denoël has recently published an article 'Le programme Polonsky France-Angleterre, 700-1200: manuscrits médiévaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library: bilan et perspectives', in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2019), 3-10. 

Cette collaboration entre la BnF et la British Library a permis d’importantes avancées technologiques: désormais, la BnF est en mesure de proposer dans Gallica marque blanche, l’infrastructure numérique utilisée pour le site web du projet, ainsi que pour les nombreux autres sites créés par la BnF pour ses partenaires souhaitant disposer d’une bibliothèque numérique sur le modèle de Gallica, de nouvelles fonctionnalités, comme le visualiseur IIIF et le multilinguisme.

Nous espérons à présent que de nouvelles collaborations et les retours des utilisateurs sur les deux sites permettront d’actualiser et d’enrichir le corpus initial du projet. 

Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed and helped publicise the websites, and happy anniversary!


Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
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14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?

A decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.

Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.

Peter Toth

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project                                           

In partnership with

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Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo