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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

11 November 2018

The cloak of St Martin of Tours

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Today is the feast of St Martin of Tours (c. 317–397). According to medieval accounts about his life, Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity after an encounter with a half-naked beggar at the gate of the city of Amiens in northern France. Martin cut his cloak in half in order to share it with the beggar, who that night appeared to him in a dream-vision and revealed himself to be Christ.

This experience encouraged Martin to renounce the army and become a ‘soldier’ of Christ. He founded a hermitage in Ligugé that would become the first monastery in Gaul, was appointed bishop of Tours in 371, and then founded and became abbot of the abbey of Marmoutier, located outside the city of Tours. After his death, St Martin was associated with many miracles and he became the patron saint of France.

Image 1 - Miracles St Martin of Tours

A collection of miracles of St Martin of Tours, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms lat. 9734, f. 22v

Central to St Martin’s cult was the relic of the remaining half of his cloak. It was deemed to be so important that the kings of France used it as a royal banner in war, and they swore sacred oaths upon it. The structure in which the half-cloak was preserved was referred to as cappella (‘little cloak’), a term that came to be used widely for buildings that served to keep relics and from which the modern word ‘chapel’ is derived.

The legend of St Martin’s cloak was first recorded in the Vita sancti Martini (Life of St Martin) of Sulpicius Severus (363–c. 425). This work survives in a number of medieval copies, such as the 12th-century manuscripts Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1 and Harley MS 4984, both possibly originating from England.

Image 2 - Vita Sancti Martini

Sulpicius Severus, Vita sancti Martini, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1, f. 88r

As a symbol of the Christian virtue of Charity, St Martin’s act of dividing the cloak became the most often-cited episode from his life, and was made the subject of many medieval works of art and literature. One example is the full-page miniature shown below, in a 12th-century manuscript (Add MS 15219) from the Benedictine abbey at Tournai (now in Belgium) that was dedicated to St Martin.

Image 3 - St Martin and the beggar

St Martin of Tours cutting his cloak for a beggar, 2nd half of the 12th century: Add MS 15219, f. 12r

The cult of St Martin appears to have gained much support in England following the Norman Conquest. After William the Conqueror (reigned 1066–1087) invaded England, many new English churches were dedicated to St Martin, most likely because he was popular among the Normans. Around 1071, William himself founded the Benedictine abbey of Battle, also known as Sancto Martino de Bello, at the site where the decisive Battle of Hastings had taken place.

Further testament to the longevity of the popularity of St Martin’s conversion miracle is a Middle English poem, which cites the Vita sancti Martini of Sulpicius Severus. This poem was added in the 16th century at the end of a manuscript containing a chronicle from Peterborough Abbey (Cotton MS Claudius A V):

The nyght Aftyr the day yt sude

Martyn yn hys bed / he nappyd

Cryst with Aungels a multytude

Aperyd yn Martyn mantyle wappyd

Yn crystyn faythe he wase belappyd

Crystynd and baptyst be the new lawe

To servise god he so wele happyd

Jhesu to hym he sayd thys sawe

Martinus adhuc catechumenus hac me veste contexit

(The night after the day it ensued,

[when] Martin was sleeping in his bed,

[that] Christ appeared with a multitude of angels,

wrapped in Martin’s mantle:

he [i.e. Martin] was ‘enfolded’ into Christian faith,

Christianised and baptised according to the new law,

to serve God [who] he clothed so well.

Jesus made this announcement to him:

‘Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed me with this mantle’.)

Image 4 - English poem

A Middle English poem of St Martin’s conversion miracle, added in the 16th century to Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 45v

The manuscripts featured in this blogpost are part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching soon. Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

Clarck Drieshen

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10 November 2018

What you won't see in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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There are riches aplenty in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. On display are several famous early English manuscripts, including BeowulfDomesday Book and Codex Amiatinus. But there isn't any mention of certain stories that you might expect, such as Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the sea, Lady Godiva's ride and ‘the Dark Ages’. These aren't featured in the exhibition because there is no evidence that they actually happened. 

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Drawing showing the real King Cnut and his wife Emma donating a cross to the New Minster Liber Vitae, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

 

Alfred and the Cakes

Take, for example, King Alfred (d. 899). Alfred is best known today for a story that claims he was an incompetent kitchen assistant. He was taking refuge in the marshes in South-West England, avoiding an approaching Viking army, when he supposedly hid in the home of a humble peasant. She asked him to watch some cakes she had placed in the oven, but Alfred was ruminating about his dire straits and let the cakes burn, and so the woman upbraided him for his carelessness.

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The story of Alfred and the cakes, from the first Vita sancti Neoti: Add MS 38130, f. 1r

This story seems to have originated in the first Life of St Neot, composed centuries after Alfred’s death. The story also made its way into a 12th-century English sermon (Cotton MS Vespasian C XIV, ff. 145v–151r) and the annals of St Neots, and it was there that it was read in the 16th century by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Parker added this story to the Life of King Alfred written by Asser, bishop of Sherborne (d. 909). The rest, as they say, is history …

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Opening of a copy of Asser’s Life of Alfred made by Stephen Batman, one of Parker’s chaplains: Cotton MS Otho A XII/1, f. 1r

This story may have some vague links to pre-Conquest sources. For example, the earliest versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) record that Alfred retreated into the marshes after he was defeated by the Vikings in 878. But there is no mention of any cakes.

‘878: In this year in the midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted to them, except King Alfred. He journeyed in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastness with a small force’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. by Dorothy Whitelock, p. 49)

 

King Cnut and the Sea

Alfred is not the only king who inspired later legends. If you ask a Briton or Dane what they know about King Cnut (d. 1035) — who ruled both countries in the early 11th century — they will probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him.

There are variations in emphasis in different re-tellings of this story and this image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change. Either way, if you come to our exhibition, you will see the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime but you won't find any references to Cnut turning back the tide.

The story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide is a later invention, often attributed to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (d. c. 1157), writing more than a century after Cnut's death. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command the waves.

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Account of Cnut and the sea in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England, late 12th or early 13th century: Arundel MS 48, f. 91r

Henry of Huntingdon’s account does point towards an important and verifiable aspect of Cnut’s career: his extravagant piety. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign confirm that he went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king. The only manuscript portrait of Cnut shows him and Queen Emma donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the New Minster Liber Vitae, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: rather, angels descend to affix the crown to his head.

 

Lady Godiva

One famous Anglo-Saxon lady does not make an appearance in the exhibition: Lady Godiva, or Godgifu, who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest against the taxes demanded by her husband, Earl Leofric of Mercia. This story first appears in the much later chronicle of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). As late as the 18th century, the story was still being embroidered: Peeping Tom, the figure who was struck blind when he sneaked a peek at Godiva, was first recorded in 1773.

Godiva was a real historical figure: she is mentioned in charters and is recorded in Domesday Book as a major landowner in 1066. But she was only one of a number of fascinating early medieval English women who owned land, were pious and influenced politics.

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A 12th-century charter purporting to be a writ from Edward the Confessor confirming gifts made by Leofric and Godgifu: Add Ch 28657

 

The Dark Ages

Above all, you won’t find any reference to the Dark Ages in this exhibition. The ‘Dark Ages’ are a derogatory term applied to the early Middle Ages, to suggest a time of chaos and a poverty of evidence. To judge by the objects on display, the Anglo-Saxon period was instead highly sophisticated, with the Anglo-Saxons themselves forging long-distance relationships with Scandinavia, Rome, Byzantium and the Carolingian empire. Our blogpost Golden oldies provides perfect proof that this was not a Dark Age.

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Remarkable artwork in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

So there are no burnt cakes, disobedient waves or naked noblewomen on display at the British Library. We would recommend instead that you visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition before it closes on 19 February 2019, in order to discover the real hard evidence for yourselves.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 November 2018

Through many hands: the Vespasian Psalter

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The British Library's current major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, is a treasure-trove of marvellous manuscripts and astonishing artefacts. One of those many treasures is an 8th-century manuscript known as the Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). Here we piece together its fascinating history. 

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The opening of Psalm 68 (‘Salvum me fac’) from the Vespasian Psalter, ?Canterbury, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 64v 

The Vespasian Psalter is a wonderful witness to the ongoing processes of creation, addition and loss in a medieval manuscript. Its story begins in the second quarter of the 8th century, around the time Bede was completing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731).  

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Detail of the opening of the hymn ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’ by Ambrose of Milan: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 152r 

It was designed from the outset as a song-book. The core part of the manuscript contains not just the Psalms but also a selection of canticles and hymns, including two written by Ambrose of Milan. These were all copied out in an elegant Insular uncial script, with headings in rustic capitals. 

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The opening of Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Homily on the First Psalm’, translated by Rufinus: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 2v 

In the 9th century, several leaves were added to accommodate supplementary material. The manuscript henceforth was prefaced by Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm 1, epistles between Jerome (the Psalms’ translator) and Pope Damasus I, and various texts relating to the origin, division, performance, interpretation and ordering of the Psalms. These were all designed to expand upon the core of the manuscript and facilitate its use and study. 

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Psalm 151 (‘Pusillus eram’): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 141r 

Jerome translated the Psalms not from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Bible, but from the Septuagint (Greek) version. Itself a translation from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint remains the preferred text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The numbering adopted by the two versions is slightly different, primarily as a consequence of differing interpretations of how certain psalms should be divided. The Septuagint also includes an additional Psalm, numbered 151, not found in the Hebrew text. In the Vespasian Psalter, a single leaf was inserted between the end of Psalm 150 and the beginning of the first canticle to make space for its inclusion. 

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Detail of Anglo-Saxon neumes added to the end of Psalm 150 (‘Laudate dominum in sanctis eius’), with an additional noted line and explicit: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 140v 

Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148–150, to provide a guide for their chanting, with Anglo-Saxon neumes added at the end of verses and half-verses. 

It is not known who was responsible for instigating or executing each of these additions to the manuscript. However, the hands of two scribes who were intimately connected with Canterbury have been identified in the Vespasian Psalter, shedding light not only on its continued augmentation but also on a curious blip in its provenance. 

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_i_f090r - detail
Detail of the opening of Psalm 94 (‘Deus ultionum’) with interlinear Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 90r 

The first scribe is known as the Royal Bible Master Scribe, after his role in Royal MS 1 E VI, and his hand is known in other manuscripts from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Around the second quarter of the 9th century — amidst the other supplementary activities in the manuscript — he added an interlinear Old English gloss to the Psalms. It has the distinction of being the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text. 

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_i_f155r
Hymn and Athanasian Creed, copied by Eadwig Basan, with a later Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 155r 

The second scribe is known by name: Eadwig Basan. He added several texts to the manuscript two centuries later: another hymn (for matins on Sunday), the Athanasian Creed, an Oratio by Eugenius of Toledo, and a confession prayer by Alcuin. These in turn were given an Old English gloss shortly afterwards, bringing them into line with the rest of the volume. 

Arundel MS 155
Full-page miniature of St Benedict and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1012x1023: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
 

Knowledgeable readers will have spotted that Eadwig’s name is usually associated not with St Augustine’s Abbey, but its neighbour Christ Church, Cathedral. His hand has been identified in several Christ Church books: most notably his eponymous Psalter (Arundel MS 155), in which he may be the figure prostrate at the feet of St Benedict in a full-page miniature; the Harley Psalter (with two other scribes, Harley MS 603) and the Cnut Gospels (an addition on f. 44v; Royal MS 1 D IX). He is famously memorialised with a full-page portrait of him at work in another Psalter that bears his name (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1). 

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Full-page miniature of David and the musicians (described by Thomas of Elmham in his history): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v 

The circumstances in which Eadwig made his additions to the Vespasian Psalter are not known. Whether he went to St Augustine’s or the book to Christ Church, it is clear that the Vespasian Psalter was at St Augustine’s for several further centuries. Thomas of Elmham’s history of St Augustine’s, written in the mid- to late 1410s and preserved in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 1, described a Psalter that was kept on the high altar of the abbey church — a Psalter whose description exactly matches the present manuscript. 

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Two canticles, with the off-print from a missing carpet page: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 142r 

Following the dissolution of St Augustine’s in 1538, the Psalter found its way into the hands of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The manuscript had suffered losses in the interim. The opening few leaves of the Psalms were gone; Elmham’s description indicates that they contained a depiction of Samuel, perhaps in the form of a full-page miniature at the opening of the text. A carpet-page also once adorned the manuscript: all that remains is a shadowy, cruciform off-print on f. 142r. 

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Detail of a letter written by Matthew Parker to William Cecil, 24 January 1565/66: 
Lansdowne MS 8, f. 190r (formerly item 73) 

Cecil lent the book to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Although Parker dutifully returned it in 1566, his desire to keep it is obvious: in the accompanying letter, he dropped a hint to that effect, writing to Cecil that the Psalter is ‘remitted again to your library: in the riches whereof, videlicet of such treasures, I rejoice as much as they were in my own’. Parker lamented the losses at the opening of the Psalms and described to Cecil how he would have had them made good, had the manuscript been his: moving the miniature of David (f. 30v) to the beginning and having the missing text ‘counterfeited in antiquity’ (i.e. copied to resemble the Insular uncial used for the Psalms). 

  Cotton MS Augustus II 3 recto
Charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, England, 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

It was Robert Cotton — who acquired the manuscript in 1599, a year after Cecil’s death — who addressed these deficiencies in his own unique way. He first inserted a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, and trimmed its edges so that it would fit. Cotton’s rationale (it seems) was that the charter provided a further example of Insular uncial. He may also have suspected, but cannot have known, that the charter was closely contemporary to the Vespasian Psalter’s production, being dated to 736. 

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Full-page foliate initial ‘B’ inhabited by men and animals, from Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1v 

At some juncture this charter was removed (it is now Cotton MS Augustus II 3) and in its place was put a leaf from the beginning of an English Psalter of c. 1220. Containing a large decorated initial B and the opening words of the first Psalm, it is a better fit with the content, if not the decorative style, of the rest of the manuscript. 

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Detail of a cutting containing the coat of arms of Margaret of York impaled with those of her husband Charles the Bold, with her motto (‘Bien en aviegne’) and their initials ('CM'), by the Master of Mary of Burgundy illuminator, from the Breviary of Margaret of York: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 160v 

Cotton made a further incongruous addition at the end of the manuscript: he pasted in a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York. Other excisions from this late 15th-century devotional book are present in other Cotton manuscripts – Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 1r–1v, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 2r, and Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r – and the much-mutilated remnant survives as Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.13

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Fragment of Psalm 2 and opening of Psalm 3 (‘Domine, quid multiplicati sunt’), and the inscription of Robert Cotton: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r 

The Vespasian Psalter escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731 completely unscathed — but by that time, as we have seen, it was in far from its original state. It is remarkably well-preserved for a book that is close to 1300 years old, but its life was demonstrably one of use and re-use: its developing role in the liturgy, its reading and translation, its decoration, and its mutilation and repair. It is the involvement of so many hands in the manuscript over so many centuries that has given it such a textured and fascinating history.

You can see the Vespasian Psalter with your own eyes in the once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display at the British Library in London until 19 February 2019.

James Freeman

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 November 2018

Coins, swords and urns: British Museum loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, presents an unrivalled chance to see Anglo-Saxon manuscripts alongside some of the most stunning objects from this period. Many of these artefacts have been generously loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum, to whom we are extremely grateful for their support. Their objects help to illuminate the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the period of Mercian supremacy, and the period of conquest in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Loveden Hill urn

The Loveden Hill Urn: British Museum, BEP 1963, 1001.14

The Loveden Hill Urn, dating from the second half of the 5th century, is one of more than 1,800 urns excavated at this cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire. Uniquely, it bears a runic inscription, which includes what could be a female personal name, SïÞæbæd. This constitutes one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. You can explore a 3D model of this urn on the Sketchfab website.

Sutton hoo buckle

The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum, BEP 1939, 1010.1

This exquisite gold belt buckle, excavated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the 1930s, is one of the most recognisable objects in our exhibition. The ship-burial included a wealth of other items including armour and weaponry, as well as a collection of silver bowls and two silver spoons which possibly came from Byzantium. This ship-burial commemorated someone of outstanding wealth and political significance in the early 7th century.

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Kentish disc brooch: British Museum, BEP 1884,1221.4

Another stunning gold item loaned by the British Museum is this 7th century disc brooch discovered at Faversham, Kent, in 1859. It was found in a woman’s grave, and its gold and garnet style bears many similarities to other elaborate brooches discovered in southern England.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

The British Museum has also loaned three outstanding coins to the exhibition, which together illustrate the height of Mercian power in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The coin shown above is the gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796). This unique coin carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side; on the other is a design based on an Arabic inscription on a coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775). The Arabic inscription translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’; the minting of this coin in Offa's name perhaps reflects his wide political reach and the value he placed on international trade.

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Silver penny of Cynethryth of Mercia: British Museum, CM TYS (BMC 60)

This coin was issued in the name of Offa’s wife, Queen Cynethryth (d. 798). It is the only surviving example of a coin issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen.

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Gold mancus of Coenwulf of Mercia: British Museum, CM 2006, 0204.1

This gold coin was issued in the name of Offa’s successor, Coenwulf of Mercia (d. 821). Its design closely mirrors other gold and silver coins from the same period. It may be the earliest gold coin intended to form part of a regular, uniform currency.

Fuller brooch

The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The Fuller Brooch has been dated to the late 9th century on account of its unique design, which reflects the centrality of man’s place in the order of creation. The outer circle features four quadrants, each filled with four smaller circles which alternate between depictions of mankind, animals, birds and plants. In the centre are five figures, which are believed to represent each of the five senses. The central figure holds two floriated stems and stares out with prominent eyes, representing sight, and is surrounded by four figures which represent smell, hearing, touch and taste.

AEdwen brooch

The Ædwen Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 1011.1

Another British Museum object in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is the Ædwen Brooch, which has been dated to the early 11th century. An inscription in Old English was etched into the outer rim of the reverse: ÆDVǷEN ME AG AGE HYO DRIHTEN / DRIHTEN HINE AǷERIE ÐE ME HIRE ÆTFERIE / BVTON HYO ME SELLE HIRE AGENES ǷILLES ('Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will').

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Silver-gilt fitting with runic inscriptions: British Museum, BEP 1869, 0610.1

A runic inscription is found on this silver-gilt fitting, the shape of which suggests that it may have once been part of a scabbard.

Seax

Seax with runic lettering: British Museum BEP 1857, 0623.1

This large iron knife or seax also has a runic inscription. This includes a runic alphabet and the name Beagnoth, who may have been the original owner or the craftsman who produced the blade.

Sword

Sword with decorated fittings: British Museum, BEP 1887,0209.1

Another fearsome blade loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this magnificent sword, complete with decorated fittings. Although it is extremely rare to find this type of sword in England, they are more common across northern and eastern Europe, suggesting that this sword may have belonged to a Scandinavian warrior.

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Seal-matrix of Ælfric: British Museum, BEP 1832, 0512.2

Seal-matrices were used to make an impression in a wax seal to authenticate a document or to close it. This matrix is made of copper alloy and is inscribed + SIGILLUM ÆLFRIC (‘+ Seal of Ælfric').

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Seal-matrix of Godwine and Godgytha: British Museum, BEP 1881, 0404.1

A second seal-matrix is made from walrus ivory, and is inscribed + SIGILLUM GODWINI MINISTRI (‘+ Seal of Godwine the Thegn’). The matrix was later re-used by a nun, who had her own inscription added on the reverse, reading + SIGILLUM GODGYĐE MONACHE DEO DATE ('+ Seal of Godytha, nun given to God’). Godytha may have been Godwine's wife or daughter. Both of these seal-matrices were high status objects, perhaps issued in connection with the performance of official duties on behalf of the king.

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Blythburgh writing tablet: British Museum, BEP, 1902, 0315.1

Another extraordinary object loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this 8th-century writing tablet, discovered at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Since parchment was relatively expensive to produce, tablets such as these were used when scribes were learning to write, making drafts or taking notes. This tablet is one half of a pair, and the other side would have originally been attached with leather thongs threaded through the two holes in the ling side.

We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for lending these fascinating objects to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Libraryuntil 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 November 2018

The real Lake of Grendel

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What if we told you that Grendel’s lake — the scene of the epic underwater battle in the epic poem Beowulf was a real place? Well, it was, according to a charter written in 931.

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Charter of Æthelstan for Wulfgar, England (Lifton, Devon), 931, with Wulfgar's will attached: Cotton Ch VIII 16

This charter is a grant of land in Ham from Æthelstan (d. 939), the first king of England, to his ‘faithful official’ Wulfgar. The amount of land involved is considerable: 9 hides, or roughly the size of 9 Hyde Parks. In order to be clear about exactly which pieces of land were being transferred, this charter, like many other Anglo-Saxon documents, included a boundary clause in Old English, describing the path you would walk around the edges of the gift.  

'First, [go] to the east ... Then westward to the mossy bank. Then down to the hedge/boundary of Beow’s home, eastward to the blackberry thicket. Then to the black pit/cave. Then north by the head to where the short dyke [is]. [Take] out of this one acre, then [go] to the bird’s pond (mere) to the path ... After that to the long meadow. Then to Grendel’s lake (mere). Then to the hidden gate, then back east ... '

Since the landscape includes Beow’s home and Grendel’s lake, it is tempting to think that these names were inspired by the poem Beowulf (although Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, not Wiltshire). At least three other Anglo-Saxon documents mention ‘Grendel’: there is another instance of ‘Grendel’s lake’, there’s a reference to ‘Grendel’s gate’, and on charter has an added boundary clause referring to ‘Grendeles pytte.’

Stowe Ch 32
‘Grendeles gatan’ (line 2), from a record of Archbishop Dunstan purchasing land to give to St Peter’s Westminster, England, second half of the 10th century: Stowe Ch 32

Of course, some people have suggested that these Grendels aren’t ‘Grendels at all, but rather a ‘green delf’ (green quarry) or even Greendales. However, the association with pits and swamps does link these names to some sinister places from Old English literature. Alternatively, a ‘grendel’ could have been a generic term for 'monster', and these 'grendels' could have inspired the poem, and not the other way around. Whichever way, this charter provides a vivid account of one corner of the landscape of early 10th-century Wiltshire, as well as offering some intriguing possibilities about the mental associations and myths that overlaid that landscape in the minds of its early medieval inhabitants.

Ham today
A road near Ham today, courtesy of Google Street View

Beyond the shades of Beowulf, this document is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a work of literature in and of itself. It begins with a dramatic preface, lamenting the costly sins of the ‘tottering’ world and ‘filthy and dreadful mortality’. It urges the audience to flee the ‘wearisome nausea of melancholy’ and instead hold to the Gospels’ promise: ‘Give and it will be given to you.’ This purple prose was drafted by the same scholar who composed many of King Æthelstan’s early charters. Æthelstan’s court was a cosmopolitan centre of learning that attracted scholars from all over the British Isles and Europe. The drafter of this charter was clearly highly educated, with a particularly intricate knowledge of Latin and frequently using Latin words so obscure that they only appear in one or two other sources.  

This charter also touches on major political developments in the British Isles, even though it is ostensibly concerned with land in Wiltshire. In the text of the charter, Æthelstan is described not only as ‘king of the English’ (rex Anglorum), but as ‘king with sole rule of flowering Britain’. This language reflects Æthelstan’s military and political ambitions. Six years later, Æthelstan would win a major battle at Brunanburh against the massed forces of the king of the Scots, the king in Dublin, the king of Strathclyde, and others.

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Detail of the names of the Welsh sub-kings, Hywel (Howael) and Idwal (Iudwal): Cotton Ch VIII 16

The charter suggests that, in 931, Æthelstan already had control over a fairly substantial portion of the British Isles. The charter was witnessed by, among others, two Welsh ‘sub-kings’: Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (d. 949/950) and Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Hywel was later credited with codifying Welsh law and he may be the only early medieval Welsh ruler who issued surviving coins. He also frequently visited England and even called one of his sons Edwin, an English name (whether out of taste or political expediency). Idwal allegedly died fighting the English in 942. However, he witnessed several of Æthelstan’s charters and there is no evidence he fought against Æthelstan at Brunanburh.

From Beowulf to bramble thickets to British kings, this charter is a good example of the wealth of material that single-sheet documents can contain. Today, the charter is even attached to the will of the recipient, Wulfgar, which reveals how he bequeathed his land and offers further insight into his social networks.

You can come and see this remarkable document in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February 2018). Additionally, all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters are now on Digitised Manuscripts, where you can explore them for monsters, meres and more!

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 November 2018

A calendar page for November 2018

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The weather’s getting colder, so come warm yourself by the (drawing of a) fire  in a 1000-year-old calendar page for November.

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A calendar page for November, from a calendar made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

The fire in this image is depicted by a few red lines. Three figures on the right extend their hands towards it. I feel particularly sorry for the middle figure, who seems to be stuck out in the cold in bare feet and legs. This figure is also under-dressed in the image for November in another 11th-century calendar,  in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.

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Detail of men by a fire: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

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Detail of men by a fire, from a calendar in a scientific collection made in southern England in the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8r

While the figures on the right of the image are warming themselves, the figures on the left-hand side are working. They appear to be smiths. There were many different types of smiths in 11th-century England, as explained in Ælfric’s Colloquy, a dialogue exercise designed to help young monks learn Latin. The Colloquy lists smiths, blacksmiths, farriers (who shoed horses), goldsmiths, silver smiths and bronze smiths among the most skilled craftsmen. Indeed, the characters in the Colloquy include a blacksmith who claims that he has the most important job in society, because he makes the tools all the other workers use. The other characters object, arguing that the enslaved ploughman is actually the most important because he grows the food that feeds everyone.

Smiths were clearly an important part of early medieval society. They appear throughout Old English literature, from the mythical figure known as Wayland the Smith to riddles in the Exeter Book.


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Detail of different types of smiths, from Ælfric’s Colloquy, part of an archbishop’s handbook made at Canterbury in the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 63r

Above the image of the smiths, two feast days marked in gold on this calendar page. They are the feast of St Martin of Tours and the feast of St Clement. Rather appropriately, given the scene depicted on this page, St Clement eventually became the patron saint of blacksmiths, and his feast is still associated with blacksmiths’ competitions to this day. This year, St Clement’s Day also coincides with the conference France and England: Medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200 // France et Angleterre : manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 in Paris, if you’d like to mark your own calendars.

This calendar page also depicts the constellation Scorpio. Scorpio was represented in various ways in medieval art. This Scorpio is notable for his clearly segmented tail.

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Detail of Scorpio: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

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Detail of Scorpio, from a calendar page for September in a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320: Add MS 36684, f. 10r

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Detail of Scorpio, from a calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, Paris, c. 1410-1430: Add MS 18850, f. 10r

You can see this 1000-year-old calendar — and many other amazing manuscripts — in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on until 19 February 2019. You’ll also be able to see some examples of gold- and silver- and blacksmiths’ work, from jewellery to weapons.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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31 October 2018

Pumpkins and pagans

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A few years ago, an American historian was contacted by the creators of a quiz show who were doing some fact-checking for their Halloween episode. Were pumpkins used in pagan rituals in the British Isles, they asked, and did early medieval paganism inspire pumpkins' role in modern-day Halloween celebrations? The historian had to break it to them pumpkins are native to North America and were not introduced to Europe for another thousand years, so that Anglo-Saxons could not have invented pumpkin carving.

There are few reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon pagan practices. We cannot be sure which holidays they celebrated or how they celebrated them. But Anglo-Saxon pagans did influence some aspects of modern culture, from the days of the week to ideas about supernatural sprites.  

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The Loveden Hill Urn, a 6th-century pagan funerary urn with a runic inscription found in a cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire, on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The earliest English speakers — the Germanic-speaking migrants who settled in southern and eastern Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries — were pagans. Very little written evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in that period, apart from runic inscriptions that are only a few words long. You can see some examples in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (open until 19 February 2019).

Evidence of pagan practices has to be pieced together from place names (such as Wednesbury, Woden's burg and Tyesmere, Tiw's lake) and burials. For example, tombs that contain objects such as weapons, pots, combs, jewellery and other ‘grave goods’ are often believed to be associated with pagans. The most famous burial of this kind was excavated at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, although it also included items associated with Christianity. There, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a rich warrior buried in a 27-metre-long ship along with weapons, a helmet, jewellery, objects used in feasts, and silver from Byzantium. Cremation cemeteries are also associated with pagans, since Christians did not tend to be cremated at this time. 

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Portrait of a pagan? Lid of a 6th-century pagan funerary urn from Norfolk, known as Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.192.1, image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

Archaeological evidence suggests that there was no one, monolithic ‘Anglo-Saxon paganism’: practices could vary widely across regions, time periods, and even within individual communities. 

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Image of Woden and five early kings allegedly descended from him, from a 12th-century historical text: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

Indirect evidence about early Anglo-Saxons’ beliefs may also be derived from the impact of pagan traditions on sources made after they converted to Christianity. Some pagan gods, such as Woden, continued to appear in the genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings, sometimes alongside figures like Adam and Eve.

The names of certain modern English days of the week may also preserve the names of gods worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, as well as a Roman god (Saturn), the Sun and the Moon.

Old English

Modern English

Meaning

sunnandæg

Sunday

Sun day

monandæg

Monday

Moon day

tiwesdæg

Tuesday

Tiw’s day

wodnesdæg

Wednesday

Woden’s day

þunresdæg

Thursday

Thunder’s day

frigedæg

Friday

Frig’s Day

sæterndæg

Saturday

Saturn’s day

Belief in pagan gods gave way to belief in a single, Christian god in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Nevertheless, later Anglo-Saxons may have retained beliefs from pagan lore. For example, elves appear in the writings of Anglo-Saxons long after the conversion to Christianity. Indeed, the earliest written reference to an elf appears in a 9th-century, Christian prayerbook, in a prayer that compared Satan to an elf. 

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Earliest written reference to an elf: from the Royal Prayerbook, Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

Later writers were not always reliable when describing the pagan past. These writers were churchmen and churchwomen who had never met a pagan and whose primary knowledge of paganism came from sources that described Roman religions. This is true even in the case of someone like Bede, who lived only a few decades after the last major Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede appears to offer a detailed account of a pagan priest called Coifi, right down to very specific rules about pagan priestly attire: ‘it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any animal but a mare’ (translated here). Bede claimed that, in his day, you could still visit the place where Coifi’s temple had stood before Coifi converted to Christianity. However, scholars have pointed out that Bede seemingly copied his descriptions from the Roman and ancient Near Eastern religions he had read about, rather than from any knowledge of 7th-century religious practices. Similarly, there are doubts about Bede's claims that 'Easter' was the name of a pagan goddess. 

Later writers, including Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, explicitly set out to prove that the Roman, 'Danish' and Germanic gods were the same. Ælfric claimed that the days of the week were essentially named after the same pagan gods in Latin and Old English. He argued that gods with similar characteristics gave their names to the same days in the Latin and English weeks, like the fertility goddesses Venus and Frigg. However, Ælfric deliberately conflated these different religions in order to condemn them all. 

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Ælfric explains the names of the days of the week in Latin and English in his 'Sermon on False Gods': Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 240v

Ælfric mentioned 'Danish' as well as Roman gods because many Viking raiders were pagan, especially in the 9th century. Some who came to and settled in England were pagan. Small amulets in the shape of Thor's hammer have been found in parts of England. That said, the surviving texts from this period were all written by Christians, who did not offer any details about these pagans' practices; Alfred the Great's biographer, Asser, used 'paganus' as a derogatory term for all Scandinavians, even a Christian Scandinavian who had become a monk. 

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Charm invoking Thor to prevent gangrene: Cotton MS Caligula A XV, ff. 123v–124r

Nevertheless, knowledge of Scandinavian paganism existed in some circles. Shortly after 1073, at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, a manuscript was made which included information about timekeeping, prognostics and some medical texts. At the bottom of one of its tables, someone added a medical charm which invoked the pagan god Thor. The charm is written in Old Norse runes, translated as:

‘Gyril, wound-stirrer, go now! You are found! May Thor ‘hallow’ you, lord of ogres, (G)yril wound-stirrer. Against rushing (infection?) in the veins.’ (translated here).

There remains a mystery about who added the runes, and why someone who knew pagan charms and Old Norse runes was present at Canterbury in the late 11th or early 12th century.

So what do we know about paganism in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? We know the names of certain gods; we can see different burial practices; and we know that traces of Anglo-Saxon paganism remain in modern English culture. But we can be sure of one thing: they did not have pumpkins.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 October 2018

Medieval nudes

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Two of the British Library's most famous illuminated manuscripts — The Romance of the Rose (Harley MS 4425) and Christine de Pizan's 'The Book of the Queen' (Harley MS 4431) — will be on display at the exhibition The Renaissance Nude, at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (30 October 2018 to 27 January 2019). The exhibition will then move to the Royal Academy, London (3 March to 2 June 2019). We hope that many of our readers will be able to see these manuscripts in person, in the USA or in the UK.

Far more than a person with no clothes on, the nude is a tradition of European art originating in Classical Antiquity. Nude artworks follow a visual formula where the naked body is displayed for the aesthetic or often sexual admiration of an imagined viewer. In recent decades, the tradition has been heavily criticised, especially by feminist thinkers and activists.

But what do medieval manuscripts have to tell us about the tradition of the nude? The Middle Ages are sometimes portrayed as a period when Classical art was forgotten, when prudishness dominated, and when sexism went unchecked. A look at these nudes from medieval art proves that none of these were true.

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Zeuxis and the nude models, The Romance of the Rose: Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

Some of the most influential stories for the tradition of the nude are retold in the 13th-century best-seller, The Romance of the Rose, an allegorical poem about the protagonist’s quest to win the love of the ‘Rose’. The story includes digressions into Classical mythology, such as the story of the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis, depicted here in a manuscript made in Paris in the 1490s.

The story goes that Zeuxis was commissioned to paint a nude picture of Helen of Troy, the legendary most beautiful woman in the world. Zeuxis could find no one beautiful enough to match his vision of Helen, so he selected five women to be his models and combined what he considered to be the best features of each. The story was important for the history of art because of its message that art is about more than simply imitating nature — artists had to use their skill and judgement to discover ideal beauty.

In The Romance of the Rose, the story has a very different interpretation. Here the tale illustrates the narrator’s point that no one can truly represent the beauty of nature — ‘even Zeuxis could not achieve such a form with his beautiful painting’. Rather, perfect beauty can only be created by God. This uniquely medieval twist transforms Zeuxis’ project to represent the ideal nude into a demonstration of the inadequacy of human artistry compared with the perfection of divine creation.

In line with this interpretation, the picture shows Zeuxis diligently painting at an easel with the five nude models grouped before him. Unfinished paintings are scattered around the room, suggesting unsuccessful attempts discarded by the frustrated artist.

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Pygmalion and the statue, The Romance of the Rose: Harley MS 4425, f. 178v

The Romance of the Rose later digresses onto the story of another ancient Greek artist and proponent of the nude, Pygmalion. According to the tale, Pygmalion sculpted a nude woman out of ivory with such skill that the statue seemed to be alive — ‘neither Helen nor Lavinia, however well-formed, were of such perfect complexion or development, nor did they have a tenth the beauty’. The sculpture was so beautiful and lifelike that Pygmalion fell madly in love with it. He became obsessed with buying it gifts, dressing it in costly clothes, and embracing and kissing it. Frustrated by his inanimate love, Pygmalion appealed to Venus to help him. The goddess placed a soul in the sculpture, transforming it into a living woman who offered Pygmalion her companionship and love.

Unlike the Zeuxis story, the narrator presents this tale as a celebration of artistic ingenuity surpassing and defying nature. The erotic premises of the nude are also made clear — in the picture the sculpture gestures invitingly to the artist and to her explicitly depicted vulva.

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Christine and the Sybil encounter the Muses, The Path of Long Study: Harley MS 4431, f. 183r

If you are thinking that these stories are uncomfortable for their indifferent and objectifying representations of women, you are not the first — medieval women were already leading the critique. In the opening years of the 15th century, The Romance of the Rose sparked an intellectual debate known as the ‘Quarrel of the Rose’. A key critic was Christine de Pizan, the first professional woman writer in Europe (b. 1364, d. c. 1430). Christine accused the Rose of misogyny, caustically writing of the plot, ‘how much effort and trickery there is in order to accomplish nothing more than the deception of a maid through fraud and cunning’.

In her own books, Christine made a point of portraying women as intelligent, good and empowered. You can see the difference in her representation of nudes in her first-person dream allegory, The Path of Long Study — depicted here in a manuscript written and illuminated under Christine’s supervision in Paris, c. 1410–14.

In her dream, Christine follows the Cumaean Sybil on a cosmological journey beginning at the Fountain of Wisdom. According to Christine, ‘I saw nine ladies bathing nude in the fountain; they truly seemed to have great authority, worth, and wisdom’. The Sybil explains that these are the nine muses, ‘they control the fountain which is so beautiful, clear, and healthy. And they hold their holy school there, which is enclosed by great learning’. In Classical mythology, the muses were the goddesses that inspired learning and the arts. Here, their nudity emphasises their intimate immersion in the waters of wisdom and their likeness to the fountain, ‘beautiful, clear, and healthy’. In this way, Christine uses the nude to represent the ideals of wisdom and to emphasise women’s embodiment of intellectual values.

And like anyone with great authority, worth and wisdom, the muses wouldn’t think of bathing without their wimples.

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Christine gives instructions from her book: Harley MS 4431, f. 261v

You can see both these stunning manuscripts in the Renaissance Nude exhibition at the Getty Center then the Royal Academy. You can also view our manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval