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

23 December 2018

Discovered in a stable: the Anderson Pontifical

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Considering that all Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are over a thousand years old, a remarkable number have survived until the present day. They have endured Viking invasions, wars and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some manuscripts have unlikely survival stories. We know, for example, that the Lichfield Gospels was hidden by a canon of Lichfield Cathedral during the English Civil War, while the Codex Aureus was ransomed by a noble family from a ‘heathen’ war band in the 9th century.

The Anderson Pontifical is another manuscript with an extraordinary survival story. It was discovered as recently as June 1970 in the stables at Brodie Castle in North-East Scotland.

Brodie Castle, Scotland

Brodie Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

It is not clear how the Anderson Pontifical ended up in Scotland. The script of the manuscript suggests that it was made around the year 1000 in southern England, possibly at Canterbury. The Anderson Pontifical includes some Old English words which are spelled in the Kentish rather than West Saxon dialect. For instance, storcellan (a censer) is spelled in this manuscript with an 'e', not 'y' as in West Saxon.

A page of the Anderson Pontifical

The beginning of texts for various exorcisms, consecration ceremonies and absolutions in the Anderson Pontifical: Add MS 57337 f. 103r

The Anderson Pontifical contains prayers and liturgical texts for a variety of services, including for the coronation of an Anglo-Saxon king. While it is impossible to tell whether this book was actually used at a late 10th- or early 11th-century coronation ceremony, it is certainly a finely-produced volume, with decorated initials and different sections of text written in different colours.

Fragment of a 17th-century letter

Fragment of a 17th-century letter mentioning a harbour at ‘Peeterhead’: Add MS 57337/1, f. 2v

Despite its possible connection to kings and bishops, the later history of this manuscript is obscure. Some clues are perhaps found in its limp vellum binding and fragments of early modern papers that were found with the manuscript in 1970. A note on part of these wrapping papers in a 14th-century hand reads, 'benedictionale [et] po[n]tificale; s[an]c[tu]m Barth[olomaeum]’. Among these wrapping papers were fragments of early modern printed books and a letter which mentions the harbour at 'Peeterhead'. This suggests that the manuscript was at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, by the 16th century.

A page from the Anderson Pontifical with an ownership inscription

Ownership inscription written in the name of Rev. Hugh Anderson, in the right-hand margin: Add MS 57337 f.1r

By 1700, the manuscript was owned by Rev. Hugh Anderson (d. 1749), minister of the parish of Drainie, near Elgin, Morayshire. We know this because he helpfully inscribed 'Ex libriis Hugonis Anderson, anno Christogonias ducentesimo supra sesquimillesimum'  on the opening folio. Anderson evidently prized the pontifical and was very particular about who would own it next. In a note dated 5 May 1741, he bequeathed it to one William Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer (Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v). However, he later crossed out that note; on 6 October 1741 the manuscript was left instead to the local laird, Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (1696–1772), 4th baronet. What happened next is uncertain, until the Pontifical's fateful rediscovery in 1970.

Note in the Anderson Pontifical

Note explaining that the Pontifical was to be bequeathed to Willliam Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer: Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v

Note in the Anderson Pontifical

Note explaining that Anderson had bequeathed the manuscript to Sir Robert Gordonstoun on 6 October 1741: Add MS 57337 f. 144r

Given its eventful history, the Anderson Pontifical is in remarkable condition. Its coloured text is, for the most part, bright and legible. Until 19 February 2019, you can see for yourself as the manuscript is on display at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Tickets are available here.

 

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21 December 2018

A whiskered beast

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A whiskered beast of woods, I shred each boar,

Though armed with tusks, and antlered stags that roar;

Crushing bears’ forearms doesn’t give me pause.

Lips bloody, I don’t fear wolves’ teeth or jaws

And dread no terror by high royal right;

I sleep wide-eyed, with my jewelled beams closed tight.

(A.M. Juster, Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto, 2015, pp. 22–23)

 

This riddle was composed over 1,300 years ago by the Anglo-Saxon author Aldhelm. Big whiskers, ferocious, regal, never closes its eyes. Have you worked it out? It refers, of course, to the lion, the king of beasts.

The lion of St Mark in the Echternach Gospels

The lion of St Mark in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 9389, f. 75v

There are some fabulous 'Anglo-Saxon' lions currently on show in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's been described (by Melanie McDonagh for the Evening Standard) as 'by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London'. The manuscripts featuring the lions are displayed alongside other artistic, historical and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Domesday Book.

Where would you have expected to see a lion in Anglo-Saxon England? The answer, most likely, was in a gospelbook. A lion, a winged man, an eagle and a calf or ox were the symbols of the four writers of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as described in Ezekiel 1.5–11 and Revelation 4.6–7:

‘And in the sight of the throne was, as it were, a sea of glass like to crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind.

And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.’

The lion was associated with St Mark, whose gospel begins with a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:3).

The image at the beginning of this blogpost is found in the spectacular Echternach Gospels. Helpfully, it is labelled ‘IMAGO LEONIS’. The lion itself leaps out of a maze of lines, which form an irregular cross. Its fur is drawn in a stylised, geometric manner and is coloured in yellow (representing gold) and a reddish-pink. It is impossible to tell precisely where this manuscript was made. Its 'Insular style' of decoration is typical of artwork produced around the year 700 in Ireland and England, as well as in monasteries in mainland Europe — such as at Echternach, now in Luxembourg — which were founded by Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

The lion of St Mark, from the Otho-Corpus Gospels

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

Another lion is found in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the Otho-Corpus Gospels. Sometime during the 16th century, this gospelbook was divided into two parts: one half was acquired by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), who bequeathed it to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the other portion entered the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) before eventually passing into the ownership of the British Library. (Cotton kept his manuscripts in book-presses named after the Roman emperors, including Julius, Nero and, in this instance, Otho.)

As in the Echternach Gospels, this lion is painted in red and yellow, and it appears to bound out of the page. But you will notice that it is no longer in pristine condition. In October 1731 it was badly damaged by fire when the Cotton library was being stored at the unfortunately-named Ashburnham House in London. The heat of the fire seems to have intensified the red and yellow pigments on the lion’s fur.

St Mark and his lion, from the Coronation Gospels

St Mark and his lion, from the Coronation Gospels: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v

The third lion in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition looks rather different. It has a clear mane and golden fur, and it flies into the scene from the right, clutching a book with a decorated cover. This manuscript was made approximately 200 years after the other two examples, possibly in Lobbes (in what is now Belgium). It probably arrived in England as a present to Æthelstan, the first king of all England (924–939), from his brother-in-law, the future emperor Otto I.

All these Anglo-Saxon lions can be viewed in the flesh at the British Library until 19 February 2019. We hope that they capture your imagination in much the same way as they did their original owners and readers. And if you need an extra fill of cats, why not also come to the Library's amazing Cats on the Page exhibition (on until 17 March 2019)?

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (19 October 2018–19 February 2019)

 

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18 December 2018

A literary giant

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The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (‘Ancient History until Caesar’) is a giant of a text. This universal chronicle, originally composed in medieval Flanders at the beginning of the 13th century, covers the ‘history’ of the world from the biblical Creation to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. There are over 90 manuscripts that contain the Histoire ancienne, including nine at the British Library, making it one of the most popular French texts of the Middle Ages. We do not know for certain the original author, but some have suggested it could be the prolific writer and translator Wauchier de Denain (fl. 1190–1210).

the duel of Hercules and Antaeus

A marginal illustration depicting the duel of Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26r

Two exquisite manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César are now on display in the Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: a copy made in Acre (in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem) in the late 13th century, now Additional MS 15268; and an Italian copy made in Naples in the 1330s, now Royal MS 20 D I. Both are full of fascinating and lavish illuminations, and are gigantic in scope and ambition, containing over 300 folios (or 600 pages). Both of these manuscripts are available to explore on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, in addition to two other important copies of the Histoire ancienne, Additional MS 19669 and Stowe MS 54.

In the Gallery, you can see the episode where Hercules wrestles the fearsome Antaeus, a mythological giant who could only be defeated once lifted off the ground and strangled in mid-air. While modern observers might think of Hercules as a purely mythological figure, medieval writers and audiences treated him as a historical one. Hercules was viewed as an exemplar of military prowess and superhuman strength, as his marvellous victory over the giant shows. Along with Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, he was, so the text claims, one of the ‘two best knights in the world’.

In the Naples manuscript, we see Hercules grappling with his opponent against a mountainous backdrop, while a crowd of excited onlookers watch fervently from the sidelines. The image in the Acre manuscript stages the scene in two parts. On the left, the two opponents engage in battle; on the right, the moment of Hercules’ victory is captured as he finally succeeds in strangling the giant.

the duel of Hercules and Antaeus

The duel of Hercules and Antaeus, and Hercules’ victory, last quarter of the 13th century: Additional MS 15268, f. 104v

Riotous battles and bloody duels account for a large proportion of the images in both manuscripts. The part that recounts the story of the Amazons, a legendary group of formidable warrior women who kill all their male offspring and let only their daughters survive, is often abundantly illustrated. These women come to the aid of the Trojans in the Trojan War, the ancient conflict between the Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy. In the Acre manuscript we see Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, who charges her female fighters into the Greek soldiers, but is later slain in a one-to-one encounter with Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus. Two other Amazon queens, Marpesia and Lampedo, are described in the text as ‘young women, with beautiful bodies and faces, and courageous hearts’. In the Naples manuscript we see them leading their troops whilst swinging their weapons in a visual cacophony of colour and movement.

battle between the Greeks and the Amazons

The battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (Queen Penthesilea wears the crown): Additional MS 15268, f. 123r

The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle

The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 23v

The visual appeal of these extraordinary illuminations may well be part of the reason why the Histoire ancienne became so popular the Mediterranean. Not only were copies made in Acre and Naples, but these two manuscripts themselves travelled widely. In an unexpected turn of events, the Naples manuscript probably was sent to Spain by Joanna of Anjou (1326–1382) as part of a ransom payment to secure the release of her third husband, James IV of Majorca (c. 1336–1375). By 1380, the manuscript had arrived in Paris, where its revised version of the text — the so-called ‘Second Redaction’ — would go on to be copied in at least eight different 15th-century manuscripts.

The Naples manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the Second Redaction, which is believed to have originated in this Angevin capital. The Second Redaction fundamentally changes the nature of the historical vision of the Histoire ancienne. In this version of the text, the section based on the Old Testament is omitted, and a much lengthier account of the Trojan war is included instead. This gives it a more secular focus: instead of having biblical figures and divine creation as the starting point for a history of humankind, the Second Redaction places the pagan heroes of the Greek and Roman worlds centre stage.

The fact that this major innovation of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César took place outside of what is now known as France should lead us to think more carefully about how texts crossed borders and shaped communities in the medieval world. While French was a language of administration, it was also a language of cultural prestige. There were people proficient in French across Europe — in the Holy Land, in Italy, in Spain and elsewhere — who looked back to a shared European past that was communicated through a shared ‘Frankish’ tongue, in a lingua franca. This literary giant may well be a French text, but it was also a distinctly European one.

a Greek fleet

Half-page miniature depicting a Greek fleet: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 66v

Both manuscripts are described in more detail on a new website created as part of the European Research Council–funded project, The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages. This website also provides the first complete transcription of the Naples manuscript, Royal MS D 20 I.

As part of the project, there will be an international conference on 14–15 June 2019, exploring how history was told in different languages of the European Middle Ages. To find out more, click here. The keynote lecture, open to the public, will be given at the British Library by Robert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews. More information will be available on the British Library Events page next spring.

For more information about these manuscripts and other copies of the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blogpost. There is a useful introduction to the text on the website of the research project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside of France (2011–2015).

 

With thanks to Melek Karataş, Matt Lampitt and Henry Ravenhall (King's College London)

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15 December 2018

Name that rune!

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Some readers of this Blog may remember a sword with a mysterious inscription that was displayed in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015. Thousands of people across the world tried to solve that particular puzzle, so we thought we'd test your brains again with another undeciphered inscription.

This time round, it's found in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display in London until 19 February 2019. On show alongside some of the greatest manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon times, and treasures from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, is this silver-gilt fitting, kindly loaned by the British Museum. It's dramatically decorated with a beast’s head: blue-glass eyes, scrolled ears, fangs and a looped tongue define its features.

A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription

A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The ‘body’ attached to the head is decorated with a line of runes. Transliterated into the Latin alphabet, they read as follows:

‘sbe/rædhtȝbcai/e/rh/ad/æbs’

But what does this mean? To date, no one has been able to translate this runic inscription into modern English. Maybe you can try?

The fitting probably dates to the late 8th century. It resembles artwork made in Mercia around that time: compare, for example, its beast head with some manuscripts from that period. The fitting’s function is uncertain, but since it is only decorated on one side, it might have been part of a scabbard for a long knife or seax. It was found in the River Thames near Westminster Bridge in the 19th century.

A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription

an initial with a beast’s head from a manuscript
Compare and contrast: (1) the beast's head from the silver gilt fitting: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved. (2) detail of an initial with a beast’s head, from a manuscript made in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century: Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

Some people have suggested that cryptic collections such as this may have acted as talismans, offering protection to the owner. You may be aware that the word ‘rún’ (rune) is related to the Germanic words for ‘secret’ and ‘whisper’.

So what do these mysterious runes mean? We'd love you to send us your thoughts, either by tweeting @BLMedieval or by using the comments button below.

 

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12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

Inscription on a letter

Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

Wealdhere’s letter

Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter in normal light

The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter with multispectral imaging

The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

The Fonthill Letter

The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

Harley abc

Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne

Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books
The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

Manuscript of Aldhelm's De virginitate
Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

Portrait of Queen Emma
Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

Will of Wynflæd
Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

the Book of Nunnaminster
End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

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07 December 2018

From the Tower the day before my death

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On 21 January 1552, Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, took some time from his prison cell in the Tower of London to compose his thoughts in a small almanac (British Library, Stowe MS 1066). Bound in crimson velvet, the book contained a calendar and tables for finding movable feasts (religious feast days which do not occur on the same date each year), the duration of moonshine and sunshine, and the ebb and flow of the tides.

The Duke of Somerset's almanac

The Duke of Somerset's almanac: Stowe MS 1066, ff. 3v–4r

The almanac was a useful thing to have to hand but, on this occasion, it was its small size (measuring just 3.75 by 3 inches) that made it particularly valuable. It could be easily concealed.

In it, Somerset wrote the following words on the fly-leaf:

               Fere of the lord is the b[e]genning of wisdume

               Put thi trust in the lord w[i]t[h] all thine hart

               Be not wise in thyne owne conseyte but fere the lord and fle frome euele [evil]

                              frome the toware

                              the day before my deth

                                             1551 [1552]

               E: Somerset

 

Somerset's inscription on the first page of the almanac

Somerset's inscription on the first page of the almanac.

At the end of the book, on the inside cover, is written in a minute italic hand, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’.

The note found at the end of the book

The note found at the end of the book

Somerset was the eldest brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII (1509–1547) and mother of Edward VI (1547–1553). Edward was only nine when he succeeded his father as king in January 1547, and authority passed to a privy council headed by his uncle Somerset as lord protector of England and Ireland and governor of his person. But Somerset fell from power in the aftermath of the 1549 rebellions: some of his colleagues blamed him for entering into open communication with the rebel leaders about political and social reform in the upcoming parliament. He was released from the Tower in February 1550 and restored to the privy council in the spring but not to his former offices as lord protector and governor.

A portrait of Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset

A portrait of Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, by an unknown artist, from the collection of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House, Wiltshire

Somerset was rearrested at court on 16 October 1551, after attending a meeting of the privy council and dining with his nephew. Two days previously, he had ‘sent for the secretary [Sir William] Cicel to tell him he suspected some ill’, but made no effort to escape (Cotton MS Nero C X, f. 44v). A number of his servants and clients were taken at the same time, who were all charged with him of conspiring ‘against the state of the realme and gouuernaunce of the King[e]s Ma[ies]te … and to the destruction of diuerse of the nobilite’ (The National Archives, SP 10/13/57, M. f. 113r). He was tried at Westminster Hall on 1 December on trumped up charges of treason and felony, accused of gathering his supporters together to ‘compass and imagine’ seizing the king ‘at [his] will … to rule and treat’, plotting to make himself lord protector again, and inciting the citizens of London into rebellion ‘with cries and exclamations, … shout[ing] … “liberty, liberty”’ (TNA, KB 8/19, mm. 24, 27).

Surprisingly, Somerset was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony (for unlawful assembly), and condemned to death. The real reason for his fall was his estrangement from the man who replaced him as head of Edward VI’s government, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and fear over his popularity with the common people. Where once they were allies and close friends, Northumberland had played a key role in deposing Somerset in October 1549, and they had argued bitterly and openly at privy council meetings over religious and state policy ever since the latter’s restoration in spring 1550. Northumberland, a careful and a ruthless man, had decided that it was time to destroy the former lord protector.

On 18 January 1552, the government took the decision to execute Somerset (featured in a previous blogpost) the day before parliament was recalled. On being informed of his fate, the duke composed his mind in the small almanac he had concealed on his person during his arrest. He turned for comfort and instruction, ‘the day before my deth’, to three verses from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible (Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 3:5; Proverbs 3:7). These verses warned against the danger of pride and commanded obedience to and faith in God. In writing them, Somerset demonstrated his piety in the face of death.

An engraving showing the execution of Edward Seymour

An engraving showing the execution of Edward Seymour

Despite a government curfew, a huge crowd gathered on Tower Hill the next morning, 22 January, to witness his execution. He addressed them ‘w[i]t[h] … alacrity, & cherefulnesse of minde & countenance’, saying he had always served the crown loyally but ‘am by a law condemned to die’, while rejoicing in the part he had played in the reformation of religion (John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1563), sigs. 3K2v–3K3v). Lastly, he implored them to obey the king and privy council and asked forgiveness from any person he had ever wronged, offering forgiveness in turn, before laying his neck on the block and praying three times. His head was struck off midway through uttering ‘Iesus’.

The Duke of Somerset's almanac next to a hand for scale

The almanac is incredibly small, and can easily be held in the palm of the hand

This almanac, Stowe MS 1066, somehow found its way after Somerset’s death to his son, Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford. He too ended up in the Tower, for his clandestine marriage late in 1560 to Elizabeth I’s cousin and heir presumptive, Lady Katherine Grey. At some point Katherine, who was Lady Jane Grey’s younger sister, inscribed the back inside cover of the almanac, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’. She gave birth to two sons in the Tower, one of them conceived during illicit conjugal visits. Queen Elizabeth was furious and kept her prisoner for the rest of her life. Katherine died, perhaps as a result of anorexia, in January 1568.

 

Alan Bryson

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04 December 2018

Spong Man and friends

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In early Anglo-Saxon times, East Anglia was an important kingdom, occupying most of what is now Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the years, archaeologists and antiquarians have unearthed objects which illuminate the lives of those who lived in or passed through East Anglia between the 5th and 9th centuries.

A stunning selection of objects from Anglo-Saxon East Anglia have been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service. These objects provide an invaluable insight into early burial practices, cultural habits and social structures among the East Angles.

Spong Man

Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum 1994.192.1

One such item currently on display in London is Spong Man, which was once the lid to a 5th-century cremation urn. This lid was excavated at Spong Hill, North Elmham, which is the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man is one of very few three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations from the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

Lead sheet with runic inscription

Lead sheet with runic inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 2004.37

Another object on loan from Norwich Castle Museum is this lead sheet with a runic inscription. It is one of several similar Anglo-Saxon lead sheets inscribed with runes. This particular sheet was discovered in Norfolk in 2004, and attempts to decipher the inscription suggest that it may have once been a memorial plate or fixed to a coffin.

Knife handle with an ogham inscription

Knife handle with an ogham inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 1950.24

Also featuring in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is this knife handle made from a red deer antler, which also has an inscription in ogham script. Ogham script uses straight or angled lines and was developed to write inscriptions in the early Irish language. Although this handle was discovered at Weeting in East Norfolk, it was most likely made far away in what is now Ireland or Scotland. It demonstrates that East Anglia had far-reaching connections with other parts of the British Isles.

Stylus

Stylus: Norwich Castle Museum L2003.4

Bronze styli such as this were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The wider side was used to smooth  the wax flat, ready for use, while the pointed side was used to inscribe text on wax-filled tablets made of wood or bone.

Binham Hoard

The Binham Hoard: Norwich Castle Museum 

Norfolk Museums Service has also kindly loaned us some sensational gold and silver items. They include a selection from the Binham Hoard, a collection of 6th-century bracelets, brooches and bracteates (neck pendants that copy the designs of Roman coins and incorporate mythological imagery). The design of these bracteates derived from the practice of wearing pierced Roman coins as jewellery.

Harford Brooch front

The Harford Farm Brooch (front): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Harford Brooch back

The Harford Farm Brooch (back): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Another item of jewellery is the Harford Farm Brooch. This 7th-century gold and garnet brooch was found in a female grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norfolk, but it is typical of brooches made in Kent. A runic inscription on the back reads, ‘Luda repaired this brooch’. 

Winfarthing Pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017.519.6

This exquisitely decorated pendant was also found in the grave of a woman. She was buried in the first half of the 7th century in a cemetery near Winfarthing, south Norfolk.

Hockwold enamelled mounts

Enamelled mounts from Hockwold, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2010.292.1, 2010.292.2

Opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Book of Durrow

The opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow: Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 86r © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, it is often possible to compare manuscripts and metalwork side by side. The design of a pair of enamelled mounts from East Anglia bears similarities to the intricate insular designs found in the Book of Durrow (on loan from Trinity College, Dublin). This suggests that certain designs, and in some cases the artists who made them, could travel large distances during the early Middle Ages. The rivets on the edges of the mounts suggest that they were once affixed to a larger item, perhaps a hanging bowl.

All of these fascinating objects from Norfolk Museums Service can be viewed until 19 February 2019 in the Library's magnificent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

Becky Lawton

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