Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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 May 2017

An ideal woman

What's your definition of the ideal woman? For centuries, the model woman of some Greek writers was pious, virtuous … and good at maths.

Burney 275 f. 293
Detail of an historiated intial with Geometry portrayed as a woman, from the works of Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle and others, translated by Gerard of Cremona, Paris, 1309–1316, Burney MS 275, f. 293r

For them, the ideal woman was Theano, a philosopher and mathematician who is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE. According to some of these later writers, she was a student and later the wife of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, musician and mathematician. As with most ancient figures, the details of her life is somewhat obscure: modern scholars debate who she was, or whether there were even two Theanos in Pythagoras’s circle.


The entry for Theano in a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia (Suda Lexicon Additional MS 11892, f. 278r, copied in 1402 in Florence by Georgios Baiophoros)

Whoever she was (or they were), Theano seems to have been an important thinker in her own right. Later writers reported that she wrote tracts on virtue, piety, the golden mean and Pythagoras’s doctrines, and they attributed some witty aphorisms to her. In one of her commentaries on Pythagoras’s writings, she was said to have remarked that, ‘if the soul were not immortal, death would be a blessing to us all.’ Elsewhere, it was said that Theano's arm was accidentally revealed in the market and someone noted ‘how beautiful your arm is’, to which she replied ‘maybe, but it’s not public.’

Sadly, none of Theano’s texts survive. A 14th-century manuscript in the British Library preserves a unique collection of seven epistles attributed to her. These letters promote the education of Greek women and critical thinking. The author of the letters addresses mostly women advising them on childcare, marriage and various household affairs. She wrote, ‘It is better to ride a horse without reins than to be an unreflective woman’.

Copy of a letter purporting to be written by Theano, Harley MS 5610, f. 7v

In the first letter, the author addresses a mother called Euboule to criticize her for bringing up her children in luxury, noting that, ‘The mark of a good mother is not her concern for the children’s enjoyment, but rather an education towards moderation. Be careful: don’t be an indulgent mother rather than a loving one.’

For centuries, Greek writers considered Theano to be the ideal wife and mother. Although this did not lead to any of the treatises attributed to her being preserved, Theano’s long-lasting fame as an educator of mothers and wives has made the letters associated with her a popular read for generations.

Peter Toth

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09 May 2017

Save a prayer for Ælfwine

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Many people — even some historians of more recent periods — think that it is impossible to study small communities or individuals from early medieval history due to a lack of evidence. Certainly, the surviving sources limit what medieval historians can study; nevertheless, there are some manuscripts which illuminate the lives of particular individuals in surprising detail.

Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from
Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became abbot of the New Minster, Winchester around 1031 and died in 1057. We know the names of his mother and other relatives and the dates they died. We know which prayers he may have said. We know how he envisioned what God looked like. We know the code he and his friends used (about which more later). We know how he predicted the weather and treated ulcers by eating a dish made from 9 egg yolks, wine and fennel. All of this information is preserved in his tiny prayer book, which survives in two volumes (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII) and has recently been uploaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.  

Measuring a handy 130 × 90 mm, Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains prayers, calendars, extracts from texts on natural phenomena, diagrams, images of religious scenes, medical recipes, a charm for catching a thief, and the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon prognostics (telling the future, or divination), in Latin and Old English.

Encoded inscription mentioning
Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

We know that this book belonged to Ælfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) because they are commemorated in a note written in code, between the calendar and the Easter tables. This code approximately involved replacing some vowels with the letter that follows them in the alphabet. Decrypted, it reads, ‘The most humble brother and monk Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.’ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ælfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ælfwine before he became abbot.

Image of the Crucifixion with
Ælfwine’s name in a prayer, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

Although Ælfsige (Aelsinus) is the only scribe mentioned in the inscription, there was at least one other scribe, and possibly an additional illustrator, involved in the creation of Ælfwine’s prayerbook. Once the prayerbook was made, additions were made in further hands to the calendar and the Easter tables, noting the deaths of kings, other monks and Ælfwine’s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.

Although Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains many personal touches, such as the notices of the death of his biological and spiritual relatives, the book was also able to be reused by later readers — with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe — who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster — added female pronouns to some of the prayers. We can be sure she was a she, because she left a note in another manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 451) asking that the scriptrix remain safe and sound forever.

The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ælfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ælfsige (Aelsinus) and the illustrator of his prayerbook to create the New Minster Liber Vitae, a collection of narrative texts, lists and images celebrating the New Minster’s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ælfwine’s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ælfwine as an individual. It suggests how he began his abbacy and the sorts of texts he was interested in preserving and the sorts of connections he and the illustrator wanted to emphasize that his house had. For example, the Liber Vitae begins with an image of King Cnut and Queen Emma making a gift of a cross to the altar of the New Minster. The New Minster Liber Vitae may also include some personal touches related to Ælfwine: a Wulfwynn, possibly his mother, appears in the list of queens, abbesses and abbots' mothers. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.

Stowe 944   f. 6v
Image of a saintly monk-bishop and a saintly abbot, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6v

Although Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) were by no means the most prominent churchmen in mid-11th-century England, the manuscripts they left behind give us a valuable window into the lives and interests of this pair of friends and colleagues.  Granted, these manuscripts are not as revealing as diaries or other genres more associated with later periods. Nevertheless, today's readers can still glimpse on Digitised Manuscripts select individuals who lived 1000 years ago.


Le caractère disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent à tort, qu’il est impossible d’étudier le quotidien, les mentalités ou les représentations de communautés ou d’individus. S’il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une réalité exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumière un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, d’avoir une idée plus précise et détaillée de leur vie.C’est le cas du livre de prières d’Ælfwine aujourd’hui conservé en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), récemment numérisés et accessibles en ligne.

Ce volume de petit module qui appartint à celui qui fut abbé de New Minster de c. 1031 à sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de précieuses informations. Les noms de sa mère et d’autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de même que la date de leurs décès. Ce petit livre atteste évidemment des prières qu’avait coutume de prononcer Ælfwine, mais également de sa pratique de l’astrométéorologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes médicales pour soigner les ulcères.

Ce manuscrit est issu d’une collaboration entre l’abbé de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ælfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la même abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci s’inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes étant directement associés au gouvernement du monastère de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est étroitement lié aux intérêts et à la personnalité d’Ælfwine.

Ce n’est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuèrent leur association dans l’intérêt de leur monastère. Ælfwine commanda ainsi à Ælfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle d’images et des listes de saints célébrant l’histoire de l’abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte également plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement à Ælfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbé se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultérieurs.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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04 May 2017

Ready are you? More medieval 'Yodas'

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A long time ago (well, a couple of years ago), in a galaxy not so far away, Damien Kempf of the University of Liverpool noticed an image of Yoda hiding in one of the British Library's medieval manuscripts. The green-skinned, big-eared figure with tufty hair bears a surprising resemblance to the character designed by Stuart Freeborn for Lucasfilm almost 700 years later. Kempf's 'Yoda' was one of several fantastical creatures reproduced in the book Medieval Monsters.

This is not the only ‘Yoda’ to be found in a medieval manuscript. Since the 'Yoda' discovered by Damien Kempf was featured on this blog, other people have told us about more ‘Yodas’ they have noticed among the British Library's manuscripts. These include a collection of romances and stories complied for a middling member of the Yorkshire gentry to a deluxe, multi-volume book of hours once owned by Emperor Charles V. We'd like to share some of these images with you here. Ready are you?

Detail of a ‘Yoda’-like grotesque, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The first ‘Yoda’ we mentioned appears in the Smithfield Decretals, a 14th-century copy of canon law decrees compiled for Pope Gregory IX. The text of the decrees appears in the central part of each page, with a commentary written around the edges. ‘Yoda’ is perched above a series of decrees about ecclesiastical elections and the jurisdictions of people elected to particular offices. The Smithfield Decretals was copied in Toulouse (in southern France) around the year 1300, but some of the decoration, perhaps including the Yoda, was seemingly added in England around 1340. At the bottom of this page, a man and a woman gesture at someone peeking out from a building. This scene, along with similar illustrations on the neighbouring pages, may tell the story of the Biblical hero Samson. 

Page from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The decoration of such manuscripts was not necessarily related to their contents. Unnatural creatures often frolic in the margins of medieval manuscripts. These images, more commonly known as marginalia and sometimes called ‘grotesques’, are often strange, hybrid man-beast figures, or animals dressed and acting as people, usually in a playful or vulgar manner. Often there is no direct link to the text appearing above them. Apes dress as friars and priests, in a not-so subtle dig at the clergy, rabbits hunt dogs, and knights fight snails, turning the natural order of things on its head. Scholars have long debated the function and meaning of these images, and there is no single answer to what their original purpose may have been. However, their placement, especially when juxtaposed with serious religious texts, demonstrates the fluidity in medieval art — and medieval society — between the sacred and the profane. These ‘Yoda’ figures potentially serve a variety of functions: they are strange and amusing, but they might also have helped the medieval readers to remember a particular piece of text.

Add 31042  f. 50r
Page from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

Last year, another ‘Yoda’-like figure was spotted by Karol Pasciano in the London Thornton Manuscript (British Library Add MS 31042, f. 50r). This manuscript contains religious poetry and romances compiled by Robert Thornton, lord of a manor in East Newton, Yorkshire. The initial with a ‘Yoda’ and two other, human heads appears at the start of the alliterative Middle English poem, ‘The Siege of Jerusalem’.

Add 31042  f. 50r
Detail of an initial from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

It was traditionally thought that Thornton was himself responsible for decorating this manuscript and one other (Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91 (A.5.2)). However, Joel Fredell has recently suggested that the initials in Thornton's manuscripts could have been the work of several artists, possibly professionals based in York. Instructions elsewhere in Add MS 31042 suggest that Thornton appreciated creativity and imagination in the text and perhaps in their decoration: on f. 32v, he instructs that the text on the following page proceed ‘according to the scribe’s imagination’ (‘secundum Fantasiam scriptoris’).

Detail of a border from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490–1494, f. 252v

‘Yodas’ are not solely found in the margins of manuscripts decorated in England. In contrast to Thornton’s uncoloured manuscript from Yorkshire, ‘Yodas’ can also be found  in lavish manuscripts produced during the Italian Renaissance. Another Twitter user has noticed two green heads with large ears in the margins of the Sforza Hours. This deluxe, multi-volume Book of Hours was originally made in the 1490s for Bona Sforza, duchess of Milan, by the Milanese court painter, Giovan Pietro Birago, and his assistants. Birago was Leonardo da Vinci’s better-paid contemporary; in Renaissance style he decorated the manuscript  with all'antica elements based on classical art. These elements included the paintings of gemstones, cameos, putti (like cherubs), and disembodied heads or masks in blue and green. The artists also depicted saints in lower margins. The page with the ‘Yodas’ also includes prayers relating to Anna the Prophetess. 

Page from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490-1494, f. 252v

Some pages of this manuscript were subsequently stolen. A later owner commissioned replacements from the Low Countries in the early 16th century, but the ‘Yoda’ page seems to come from the earlier part of the manuscript. This gorgeous Book of Hours belonged to several major figures, including Margaret of Austria and her nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. One wonders what they thought about its decoration.

Detail from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 24r

Recently, we have noticed yet another ‘Yoda’, marking the end of a line in the Luttrell Psalter. The Luttrell Psalter, made in the 14th century for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, is a cornucopia of weird and wonderful marginalia, so it is perhaps no surprise that a ‘Yoda’ is amongst the hundreds of other creatures crowding around the text. Here, a ‘Yoda’ fills up the space at the end of a verse of Psalm 9: ‘God is not before [the sinner’s] eyes: his ways are filthy at all times.’ 

Yoda is that you?!? Details from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, ff. 61r, 65r, 70r, 72r

It is, of course, unfair to group medieval marginalia with reference to later works of science fiction. The artists who drew these large-eared, green-skinned creatures may have had a better understanding of what those features meant, if they symbolised anything at all. For example, the Rutland Psalter (shown above) features very similar-looking, big-eared heads in orange and green gnawing on borders. It is not clear that that artist intended the difference between these two creatures to signify anything beyond a varied colour scheme. In the same way, the Sforza Hours’ green ‘Yodas’ are joined by similar-looking, blue heads or masks on other pages, while a 15th-century Apocalypse picture book from Central Europe includes a whole host of big-eared creatures of various hues.

Large-eared creatures, some with green skin, in and around the lake of fire and brimstone, from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

It is fun, nevertheless, to notice the similarities in the decoration of manuscripts containing different types of text and made in different contexts, from a local lord’s story collection in the far north of England to height of the Italian Renaissance. As Damien Kempf noted, 'Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.' ‘Modern’ imaginations and fantasies are not so dissimilar from those of a 15th-century Yorkshireman or a Milanese duchess.

We'd love you to tell us about other 'Yodas' you may have noticed. You can comment on this post below or via our Twitter feed @BLMedieval.

Alison Hudson and Taylor McCall

01 May 2017

A Calendar Page for May 2017

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Spring has well and truly sprung — let’s celebrate with a look at the calendar pages for May in everyone’s favourite Additional MS 36684! For more information on the manuscript, take a peek at January’s post, and for an excellent general guide to medieval calendars, please see our original calendar post from 2011.

Fig 1_add_ms_36684_f005v Fig 2_add_ms_36684_f006r

Calendar pages for May, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 5v–6r

While May doesn’t have quite as many frolicking nude figures as April, there is still plenty of fun going on. The labour of the month showcases the traditional aristocratic pastime of falconry (or hawking), with a gentleman astride his horse, a falcon perched on his right hand. A popular sport for the moneyed upper classes and royalty, falconry entailed using trained birds of prey to hunt small animals, and remained an elite status symbol for centuries.

Fig 3_add_ms_36684_f005v hawking
Falconry, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The marginal figures next to the falconer are the usual mash-up of animal and human hybrids, save for the man labouring at the bottom of the margin. As the page has been cut down some point after the manuscript was made, we can only guess what activity he might be up to.

Fig 4_add_ms_36684_f005v marginalia
Detail of marginalia, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The zodiac symbol for May is Gemini, represented by a pair of human twins. In Additional MS 36684, the twins are — as was typical — partially nude, their lower halves modestly covered by a large red shield marked by a white bird (perhaps a pelican?). They embrace congenially — everyone is in a good mood in May, when the weather is nice!

Fig 5_add_ms_36684_f006r gemini
Gemini, Add MS 36684, f. 6r

Don’t forget that you can digitally flip through all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. See you back here on 1 June for more fun!

Taylor McCall
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29 April 2017

The end of the world as we know it

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You never know when the end of the world is going to happen, and so here at the British Library we've been in a race against time to digitise our Apocalypse manuscripts, before it's too late! Here is a selection of images from newly digitised manuscripts, so everyone knows what to expect when it happens.

Angels with trumpets and incense from a picture-book of the Life of St John and the Apocalypse, Northern France or Low Countries, c. 1400, Add MS 38121, f. 11v

Let’s start off with some optimistic scenarios. In the beginning it is all visions of heaven, with starry skies, cute lambs and choirs of angels.

John the Evangelist sees the Heavenly Choir worshipping the Lamb and the four Evangelists’ symbols, from an Apocalypse with commentary by Berengaudus, in parallel Latin and French, France (Normandy), c. 1320–1330, Add MS 17333, f. 24v

The vision of Heaven (Revelation IV 2–8), from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 7r

But then the trumpets sound.

The Third Trumpet, a burning star falls from Heaven; the Fourth Trumpet: the sun and moon are darkened from the Huth Apocalypse, Add MS 38118, f. 15r

And its not long before things start to get nasty. There are murders and earthquakes.

The earthquake, from Add MS 17333, f. 8r

The earthquake from an Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, England or France, early 14th century, Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 41r

Fire rains down on the earth as Judgement Day approaches.

Fire raining on the earth from the Apocalypse in French prose with a prologue by Gilbert de la Porree, Lorraine, 1275–1325, Harley MS 4972, f. 14v

The lake of fire and brimstone and the Judgement from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

Pretty soon there are weird and nasty beasts everywhere, even in the text, and all hell breaks loose, literally.

Zoomorphic initial from a Commentary on the Apocalypse by Haimo of Halberstad, from the area that is now Belgium (Tournai?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 25312, f. 55v

The dragon wages war on humans (Revelation XII: 17), Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 31r

The beasts of the Apocalypse attack the people, from an Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French, France, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 17399, f. 22v 

A dragon and a beast with 7 heads, Add MS 38121, f. 23v

And then there is the pale horseman and the wicked woman of Babylon.

The pale horseman of the Apocalypse, Add MS 22493, f. 3v 

The wicked woman seated on the beast, from an Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French with a paraphrase in Middle English prose, Add MS 18633, f. 35v

Finally, kings and others in power don’t seem to come out of this too well!

The birds, summoned by the angel in the sun, attacking and eating the flesh of kings and powerful men, Lorraine (Metz or Verdun), 4th quarter of 13th century, Add MS 22493, f 4v

So dear readers, don’t say we didn’t warn you ! If you don’t believe us and want to see it all for yourself, here is a list of our recently-digitised Apocalypse manuscripts:

Add MS 17333, Apocalypse in parallel Latin and French. 

Add MS 17399, Apocalypse in prose with gloss in French  

Add MS 18633, Apocalypse in Latin with a verse translation and prose commentary in French and a paraphrase in Middle English prose  

Add MS 19896, Apocalypse Picture Book with Latin text 

Add MS 22493, Apocalypse, fragment with commentary by Berengaudus 

Add MS 25312, Commentary on the Apocalypse in Latin by Haimo of Halberstad, 

Add MS 35166, Apocalypse in Latin with commentary 

Add MS 38118, The Huth Apocalypse, in French prose with gloss 

Add MS 38121, Picture Book of the life of St John and the Apocalypse 

Harley MS 874, Apocalypse in Middle English 

Harley MS 4972, Apocalypse in French, Prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl 

Royal MS 2 D XIII, Apocalypse in Latin and Anglo-Norman French 

And old ‘favourites’ that have been on our Digitised Manuscripts website for some time and have featured in previous blog posts are:

 Add MS 11695, The Silos Apocalypse 

Add MS 15243, Apocalypse in German 

Add MS 38842, Apocalypse with commentary in French prose (fragment)

Add MS 42555, The Abingdon Apocalypse 

Royal MS 15 D II, The Welles Apocalypse 

Royal MS 19 B XV, 'The Queen Mary Apocalypse' 

Yates Thompson MS 10, Apocalypse in French

Chantry Westwell

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26 April 2017

Blooming lovely

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Spring is finally here with spells of sunshine, birds singing and flowers blooming! It’s the perfect time of year to explore medieval gardens and their many uses. Gardens during this period were highly practical and used to grow both food produce and medicinal plants. The British Library houses a blooming lovely collection of early medieval texts that reveal the activities of English gardens at this time.

Miniature depicting vine-cutting beneath the calendar page for February, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

Illuminated calendars often depict the labours of the months, scenes depicting the rural activities that were commonly performed in the months of the year. A calendar copied in the first half of the 11th-century (now Cotton MS Julius A VI) features line drawing miniatures of the late winter and early springtime activities of ploughing, cutting vines, digging and sowing, and the month of April is accompanied by a scene of Anglo-Saxon noblemen feasting on the fruits of the agricultural labours. Domesday Book records many vineyards in South-East England, but the quality of wine was poor and by the 12th century wine was imported from Bordeaux, the French territory under English rule following the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Instead, orchards gained popularity in England and apple cider was widely consumed.

Bottoms up: The Indicia sign for ‘beor’, beer or cider from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100r

Cotton MS Tiberius A III contains an Anglo-Saxon food list in the Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r-101v), an Old English sign language for use when Benedictine monks had to keep silence at Christ Church, Canterbury, including during meal times. This food list reveals the foods consumed by the monks at Canterbury and includes a sign for beor, a drink that may be the Old English word for beer or cider. To request beor at meal times, one had to make the following sign: Beores taken is þaet þu gnide þine hand on þa oþre, ‘you grind your hand on the other’, which might stand for pressing apples.

Reaping the rewards: Miniature depicting feasting beneath the calendar page for April, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

As well as vineyards, the herbal garden featured prominently in everyday life in early medieval England. Herbs and plants were grown for both culinary and medicinal purposes, to flavour food as well as being prepared for their healing properties. For example, the Old English herbal (now Cotton MS Vitellius C III) lists the chamomile plant, commonly used to flavour drinks, as being used to treat eye pain. This manuscript is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. It is an Old English translation of Late Antique texts on medicinal properties of plants, and each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal and instructions for preparing it for treatment of specific ailments. The manuscript also contains a work known as the Medicina de quadrupedibus (‘four-legged animals’), and includes a text on the medicinal properties of badgers.

Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

A spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down: Recipe for oxymel from England (Bury St Edmunds), late 11th century, Sloane MS 1621, f. 64v

Honey is another foodstuff that was popularly used in medical treatments. An 11th-century English collection of medical recipes (now Sloane MS 1621) includes a recipe for oxymel, a herbal drink made by a mixture of vinegar of honey that was commonly used as a medicine. Bees were likely kept in England from pre-Roman times and the first written evidence of hive beekeeping is recorded c. 705 by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne in his work De virginitate, with a reference to hives made of wicker. The British Library has several manuscripts of the prose version of De virginitate, including Royal MS 5 F III.

Never mind the buzzing: A depiction of beekeeping in the earliest extant manuscript of Clark’s Second-family bestiaries, England, c. 1175-1200, Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Beekeeping was widespread in early medieval England, with hives recorded in hundreds of places in Little Domesday Book which primarily covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Honey was also an essential ingredient in mead, the alcoholic drink most popularly associated with feasting. Mead appears in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which includes a gigantic mead-hall called Heorot. The British Library holds the only medieval manuscript copy of Beowulf (now Cotton MS Vitellius A XV), produced in Anglo-Saxon England in the late 10th or early 11th century. We hope you feel inspired to try growing your own medieval garden!

Alison Ray

Opening folio, from Beowulf, England, late 10th century to early 11th century, in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

Le soleil rayonne, les oiseaux chantent et les fleurs commencent à éclore, nous y sommes, c’est enfin le printemps. C’est la période parfaite pour découvrir les jardins médiévaux et leurs multiples vocations! A cette époque, ils ont une dimension pratique et sont destinés à la production de denrées ainsi qu’à la culture d’herbes médicinales. La British Library abrite ainsi une riche collection de textes témoignant d’activités relatives aux jardins.

Les calendriers dépeignent le plus souvent les travaux de la saison et les activités rurales qui y sont attachées : labours, coupe des vignes, plantation des semailles.

Si les vignobles étaient nombreux dans le sud-est de l’Angleterre, la qualité du vin demeurait médiocre. Dès le XIIe siècle, le vin est ainsi importé de Bordeaux, alors terre anglaise du fait du mariage d’Henri  II et d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Les vignobles anglais ne rencontrèrent certes pas de succès, mais il en était autrement des vergers, fournissant à la population un délicieux cidre. Le cidre et la bière constituaient les boissons les plus répandues, y compris chez les moines.

Les jardins dédiés aux herbes et aux plantes destinées tant aux soins médicaux qu’à la cuisine faisaient également partie du quotidien au Moyen Age. Ces usages sont décrits dans des herbiers, des œuvres répertoriant les qualités et les usages des différentes plantes. Les manuscrits médicaux sont également loin d’être exempts de recettes à base de plantes.

Le contenu de ces jardins vous a certainement donné des idées de recettes, mais en attendant on ne peut qu’en déduire et en conclure : « il faut cultiver notre jardin » !

 Laure Miolo


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22 April 2017

How our ancient trees connect us to the past

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Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217. 

Add Ch 24712

The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.

The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer. 


Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.

To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.

The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):

Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.

The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people. 

The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.

The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.

Andrew Dunning

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21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

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