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

12 May 2018

The female pope

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Rihanna recently created headlines when she appeared at the 2018 Met Gala, wearing a white mitre, in the guise of a bishop or even a pope. People have long been fascinated with the idea and imagery of a female pope. In the later Middle Ages, there was an oft-repeated story about Pope Joan, a highly educated woman who pretended to be a man and was elected to the papacy. Pope Joan almost certainly never existed, but it's interesting to see how this story evolved.

A detail from a translation of Boccaccio's On famous men and On famous women, showing an illustration of Pope Joan.
Image of Pope Joan, from a copy of Laurent Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De viris illustribus and De mulieribus clarisRoyal MS 14 E V, f. 468r

Some of the earliest references to a female pope appear in 13th-century chronicles, such as the Universal History of Metz, a history of the whole world from the beginning of time. The basis for the most common medieval legend of Pope Joan is found in the Chronicle of Popes and Emperors compiled by Martin of Troppau (d. 1278, also known as Martin of Opava or Martinus Polonus). According to this chronicle, Joan was an Englishwoman who was born in Mainz in the 9th century. She fell in love and dressed as a man in order to follow her lover on his travels to Athens. The brilliant Joan became very well educated and was elected pope. However, her secret was revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a papal procession and died, and the popes never used that route for their processions again. Versions of this story became increasingly elaborate, claiming that Joan had been killed or that a statue was later constructed on the site of her death.

A detail from a copy of the chronicle of Martin of Troppau, showing a portrait of Martin in a historiated initial
Image of Martin of Troppau from an historiated initial in a copy of his chronicle: Harley MS 641, f. 118r

Earlier sources do not support this narrative. Martin and others claimed Joan lived in the 9th century and succeeded Pope Leo IV (d. 855), but they may have confused her with one of the Pope Johns who reigned in the second half of the 9th century. The 9th- and 10th-century papacy was also scorned by contemporary and later writers for its corruption, with some writers suggesting that the popes were controlled by the women in their lives, including their mistresses and such accounts may have fueled ideas about a female pope. The story about Joan's statue may also have resulted from confusion over one of the statues of the Virgin and Child in Rome.
 
The story of Pope Joan was frequently found in later medieval chronicles, including the 'official' account of the lives of the popes written by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina (d. 1481). Joan also became a major figure in literature. Boccaccio included Joan in his Book of Famous Women, holding her up as a negative example of a clever woman who had the audacity to infiltrate male institutions and brought dire consequences in her wake. Christine de Pizan certainly knew the story of Pope Joan, but she pointedly omitted Joan from her City of Ladies, a text written primarily to praise women and counteract what she claimed was a misogynistic literary culture.

A detail from a French translation of Boccaccio's On famous women, showing an illustration of Pope Joan giving birth during a procession.
Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from a French translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

Other writers treated Joan differently. She was praised by the humanist writer Mario Equicola (d. 1525), who wrote: 'What shall I say of John/Joan VII? It is clear that a woman can ascend to the papacy, the highest rank in Christendom.' Equicola's attitudes may have been informed by his role as a courtier of Isabella d'Este, an Italian noblewoman and influential patron during the Renaissance.

One modern commentator, Thomas Noble, has described Pope Joan as 'a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die'. Given modern fashion trends, it looks as though interest in the idea of a female pope may continue for many more years to come.

Alison Hudson

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10 May 2018

What's in a name?

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Do you ever sign your name in your books? Is that something you did as a child (as I used to do in my Mr Men books) or is it a habit you've carried over into adulthood? Do you ever inscribe your books in case you lend them, or do you date them as a record of when they were acquired?

One person who regularly signed his books was the politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton's library of manuscripts was presented to the British nation upon the death of his grandson, John, in 1702, and it now resides at the British Library. Among its many treasures are two copies of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215, the sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, and the state papers of the Tudor monarchs.

I am particularly keen to learn more about how and when Cotton obtained his manuscripts. Much pioneering work on this topic was done by Colin Tite, who died last year, as recorded in his The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton: The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London, 1994), and The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003). Among the evidence for the gradual growth of Robert Cotton's library are the various catalogues compiled during and after his lifetime, his correspondence with other scholars, and the manuscripts themselves. I hope in time to be able to collate all this information. Below are some examples of Cotton's dated signature, starting in 1588 when he was aged just 17, and encompassing manuscripts such as the magnificent Vespasian Psalter, dated in 1599.

A page from a 10th-century penitential manual, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1588.

A detail from a 10th-century penitential manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton.

A penitential manual (10th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1588, aged 17: Cotton MS Vespasian D XV, f. 83v

 

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in the lower margin, dated 1599.

A detail from the Vespasian Psalter, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1599.

The Vespasian Psalter (8th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1599: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r

 

A page from a 12th-century historical chronicle, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated to 1600.

A detail from a 12th-century, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1600.

Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1600: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 28r

 

A page from a 12th-century Glasgow pontifical, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated 1604.

A detail from a 12th-century Glasgow pontifical, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1604.

A Glasgow pontifical (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1604: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/1, f. 3r

 

A page from a 12th-century manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated to 1612.

A detail from a 12th-century manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1612.

Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma animae sive De divinis officiis (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1618: Cotton MS Tiberius C III, f. 4r

 

Among other manuscripts whose acquisition we can potentially date on the basis of inscriptions in the books themselves are:

  • Cotton MS Julius E IV, 'Rob. Cotton Bruceus ex dono Walter Cop militis 1603' (f. 10r)
  • Cotton MS Nero D VII, 'Robertus Cotton Bruceus Liber ex dono vicecomitus sancti Albani 1623' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Vespasian B XXVI, 'Ro: Cotton Cuningtonensis 1602' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Titus A XXII, 'Ro: Cotton / 1596 / Conington' (f. 2v) and 'Robert Cotton / 1598' (f. 286r)
  • Cotton MS Faustina B VII, 'I had this book amongst Mr Talbotts papers 1598' (f. 2r). According to the Oxford Dictonary of National Biography, Thomas Talbot died between 1595 and 1599; this manuscript may indicate that he died around 1598.

Putting all this evidence together, I very much hope one day to be able to continue Colin Tite's magnificent work, so that collectively we understand more about the origins, growth and early usage of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript collection.

 

Julian Harrison

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06 May 2018

The spectacular Moutier-Grandval Bible

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As part of his plan to reform the Church, Charlemagne gathered scholars and advisors to his court from all over Europe. One of these was Alcuin of York, who prepared a corrected version of the Bible for the Emperor in early 800. Alcuin was appointed abbot of the monastery of St Martin in Tours in 796, and under his direction and that of subsequent abbots, St Martin’s became a major centre for the production of Bibles — over forty copies from the first half of the 9th century survive (for more on this, see David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’, cited in the Bibliography below). Together, these manuscripts constitute impressive evidence of the desire to produce a corrected text of the Bible for use throughout the Carolingian empire. 

A page from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, showing a historiated initial B with a representation of David wrestling a lion

Historiated initial ‘B’ with David wrestling a lion, at the beginning of Psalms, in the Moutier-Grandval Bible, Add MS 10546, f. 234r

As noted following a recent discovery at Princeton, the copies of the Bible produced at Tours are large and their text is very legible, with a distinctive ‘export quality script’ (Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’). Of the fourteen surviving Tours pandect Bibles (books bound in a single volume), three are spectacularly illustrated, made during what has been called the ‘high point’ of Tours production, under abbots Adalhard (r. 834–843) and his successor Vivian (r. 844–851). The earliest of these is the Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library Add MS 10546), an enormous volume of 449 leaves that is over half a metre (over one and a half feet) tall. To get a sense of its sheer size, see these images of the manuscript being filmed in the British Library’s photographic studio.

The Bible takes its name from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval in the diocese of Basel, for which it may have been made originally as an export of the Tours scriptorium. The book includes four miniatures that are celebrated as some of the earliest examples of full-page narrative art in manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

A page from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, showing illustrations of scenes from the beginning of the Book of Genesis.

The Creation of Adam and of Eve, the Admonition, the Temptation and Fall, the Expulsion and Eve suckling and Adam toiling, at the beginning of Genesis, Add MS 10546, f. 5v

The first illustration appears at the beginning of Genesis, arranged in four friezes, in which the sequence of events moves from left to right. Individual scenes depict selected events described in the second and third chapters of Genesis: the Creation of Adam and Eve; God’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge; the Temptation and Fall; and the Expulsion. Within the borders is a poem in verse written in gold letters also summarizing these events; in fact, the poem may have been composed from the pictures. 

A page from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, showing illustrations of scenes from the Book of Exodus.
Moses receiving the Law from the Hand of God, and extolling the Law to the people, at the beginning of Exodus, Add MS 10546, f. 25v

The book of Exodus also merits a full-page illustration recapitulating some of its most significant episodes, presented in two rather than four registers. In the upper one, Moses receives the law from the hand of God on a mountain erupting in flames, illustrating Exodus 24:17 (‘And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a burning fire upon the top of the mount’). Below this Moses imparts the commandments from the second set of tablets to the people of Israel (Exodus 34:29–32). Stylistically, the artist’s debt to classical art is clear, in the dress of the figures, the hanging curtains and in particular the architectural backdrop with its arcaded wall, coffered ceiling, and figures in the spandrels reminiscent of Roman wall painting, now known from excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

You can view the Moutier-Grandval in all its splendour on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Further reading

Die Bibel von Moutier-Grandval, British Museum ADD.MS.10546, facsimile commentary by Johannes Duft and others (Berne, 1971).

Die Karolingischen Miniaturen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler & Florentine Mütherich, 7 vols (Berlin, 1930–2009), II, Die Hofschule Karls des Grossen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1958), pp. 56–69, pls 42–66; II, 2 parts, 3:1: Die Gruppe des Wiener Krönungs-Evangeliars, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1960), pp. 22–27, 30–31, 35–45.

Herbert Kessler, The Illustrated Bibles from Tours, Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 7 (Princeton, 1977), pp. 5, 14, pls 1, 44, 48, 87, 107.

David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 53–62

Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 63–77 (p. 63)

David Ganz, ‘Carolingian Bibles’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012–), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden & E. Ann Matter (2012), pp. 325–37.

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, 2016), no. 6. 

03 May 2018

Troy ahoy

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Classical legends have an enduring quality that means they have been adapted, translated, read and performed almost continuously from antiquity up to the present day. Such stories certainly captured the medieval imagination, judging by the number of massive, gloriously illuminated copies that were made for those who could afford them — mostly royalty and the nobility — in the 14th and 15th centuries. Medieval aristocrats loved history, particularly when mingled with romance, and the legend of Troy held an extraordinary fascination for them, especially after the crusaders brought back accounts of the exotic lands of the Middle East.

Two British Library manuscripts containing the Troy legend in French have recently been fully digitised and are now available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.

Stowe MS 54

This is a copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César or Histoire Universelle, a universal history from the time of Thebes to the reign of Pompey in ancient Rome 60 BC, and combining legend and historical fact. The artist is thought to have been from the Netherlands, but was working in Paris in the mid-to-late 15th century. Following on from the legends of Oedipus, Thebes and Hercules, this dreamlike view of the legendary city of Troy introduces the famous story, and is followed by a series of smaller images depicting the major characters and events, as well as a double-page spread showing the Greek navy attacking from the sea.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the city of Troy.

The city of Troy with a ship, from the Histoire Universelle, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Stowe MS 54, f. 30v

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the celebrations in Troy upon Paris' return to the city with Helen.

The celebrations in Troy on the return of Paris with Helen: Stowe MS 54, f. 64r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of Ulysses and Diomedes under the golden pine tree arranging a truce with King Priam.

Ulysses and Diomedes under the golden pine, arranging a truce with Priam: Stowe MS 54, f. 76r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the Greek forces attacking Troy by sea.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the Greek army attacking the city of Troy.

The Greeks attack Troy from the sea: Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v–83r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the deaths of Achilles and Antilogus.

The Death of Achilles and Antilogus: Stowe MS 54, f. 178r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of Trojan Horse discovered in the abandoned Greek camp.

The Trojan Horse: Stowe MS 54, f. 201v

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the destruction of Troy.

The destruction of Troy: Stowe MS 54, f. 206v

Harley MS 4376

The history of Greece and Troy is given special emphasis in the Chronique de la Bouquechardière, a chronicle that covers the period from Creation to the reign of Caesar. It was compiled by the Norman knight, De Courcy, soon after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), and is named after his estate or fief, Bourg-Achard. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V. This image illustrates events leading to the Trojan War, as related in Book II. Here, Paris has abducted Helen from Sparta and they meet his father, Priam, at the gates of Troy. Helen and Paris are dressed in elaborate 15th-century court dress and Priam wears a sumptuous jewelled cloak.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chronique de la Bouquechardière, showing an illustration of the meeting of Paris and Helena with King Priam.

Paris and Helena meeting Priam outside Troy, at the beginning of book II, Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Harley MS 4376, f. 90r

Included in both works is the legend of Alexander the Great, based on the exploits of the great military leader who reigned from 356 to 323 BC, but greatly embroidered with miraculous events from his life and campaigns in the East. This chronicle is divided into 6 books, and this illustration occurs at the beginning of Book 5, relating the history of Macedonia and Alexander's conquests. Here he is seen with Lady Fortune and her wheel, a device often used by medieval artists to show the rise and fall of famous heroes.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chronique de la Bouquechardière, showing an illustration of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune, and the murder of Alexander II of Macedonia.

Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune, and the murder of Alexander II of Macedonia before the throne of Eurydice, at the beginning of book V: Harley MS 4376, f. 271r

On the right is shown the murder of Alexander II, short-lived king of Macedon from 371 to 369 BC. Alexander was murdered during a festival, probably in a plot involving his own mother, Eurydice, wife of Amyntas III.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Chantry Westwell

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01 May 2018

A calendar page for May 2018

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Today is 1 May, which means summer is almost here. Well, it is according to the calendar we are exploring this year, which was made in southern England about 1000 years ago.

A page from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing the calendar for May, with an illustration of shepherds with their flock.
Calendar page for May, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

Each day in this calendar has a verse of poetry that describes a notable event associated with that date. These are often saints’ days, but astronomical and other events are mentioned as well. The verse for 9 May, shown below, reads: ‘Here begins the summery heat for 7 multiplied by 13 [days].’ Just to make sure no one missed it, the red text in the margin clarifies: ‘The beginning of summer. It has 91 days.’ That might be a bit much to hope for this year.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing verses of poetry associated with different dates in the month of May.

Indeed, in case the weather isn’t feeling quite like summer in 9 days’ time, the poem offers a second possible start date for warm weather: ‘Burning summer is born on the ninth day before 1 June’, namely 24 May (in the first line below).

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing verses of poetry associated with different dates in the month of May.

Other special days in May were marked out with gold crosses in the margin of this calendar. These include 1 May, the feast of St Philip and James, although the verse for that day is either incomplete or has been erased. 3 May is also marked out: it was the feast of St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross. There is also a gold cross by 26 May, which commemorates ‘Augustine, who crossed over the curve of this world [died] seven days before 1 June.’  This was a reference to St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, not St Augustine of Hippo. Early medieval people understood that the world was round, so in art and literature part of the world and its atmosphere were sometimes represented in abbreviated form as a curved shape or arch.

A detail from the Cnut Gospels, showing a historiated initial with a representation of Christ sitting on the arc of the world.
Detail of an historiated initial showing Christ sitting on the arc of the world, from the Cnut Gospels, England, pre-1019, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 66r

In addition to containing a poem for each day of the year, this calendar is also one of only two illustrated calendars to survive from 11th-century England. (The other is Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.) Each page includes depictions of zodiac symbols and agricultural and social activities. For May, those are Taurus the bull and shepherding respectively. Interestingly, one shepherd is portrayed dressed as a layman, with a beard and short tunic, and two others are portrayed wearing long robes. It is unclear if their attire reflects the exemplar of this manuscript or if their long robes allude to the dress of monks and churchmen at this period. Christian leaders were often compared to shepherds. Today, some clergy are still called ‘pastors’, the Latin word for shepherd.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing an illustration of shepherds with their flock.
Detail of shepherds, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

This calendar also includes a wealth of other information from the movements of the moon to the days of the week, as our post from January explains. Thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200, you can explore this manuscript in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Alison Hudson

 @BLMedieval

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27 April 2018

Medieval manuscripts internship

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Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in art history, history or other relevant subject to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. As part of this project, 800 illuminated manuscripts made in England and France before 1200 have been digitised. The internship is a six-month position based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department at the Library in London.

A page from a medieval bestiary, showing an illustration of an eagle.

The eagle, in a medieval bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 35v

The focus of the internship will be to assist the curatorial team in all aspects of the project, particularly in the promotion of it to general and academic audiences in preparation for its launch later this year. Duties may include researching, creating and enhancing our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue records, and publicising them in blogposts and other interpretative material. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with varied research interests.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start on 30 July 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of this internship (reference 01982) can be found here.

Closing Date: 20 May 2018

Interviews will be held on 4 June 2018 and it is hoped that the successful candidate will start on 23 July 2018. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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23 April 2018

The oldest English writing in the British Library?

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Today the British Library holds over 150 million collection items and counting. They include most known languages but many, not surprisingly, are in English. So what is the oldest example of the English language held at the Library? The answer is more complicated than it might appear. Many Old English texts only survive in later copies, while the vast majority of our oldest manuscripts from early medieval England are in Latin, the principal language of learning and writing in western Europe at this period. As Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, completed in 731, 'At the present time, languages of five peoples are spoken in the island of the Britain ... English, British, Irish, Pictish and the Latin languages.'

A detail from the Tiberius Bede, showing a passage from Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he describes the languages spoken in Britain.
The languages spoken in Britain, according to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Canterbury, 9th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 6v

The English language first developed around the middle of the 5th century. It was based on the languages spoken by immigrants to the British Isles, who came from southern Scandinavia and parts of present-day Germany. These early dialects are collectively called 'Old English'.

The earliest texts in English survive as very short runic inscriptions on metal objects and ceramic pots. The earliest substantial example of English is the lawcode of King Æthelberht of Kent (reigned c. 589–616), but that work survives in just one manuscript (the Textus Roffensis), made in the 1120s. Several Old English manuscripts in the British Library may contain texts that were based on much earlier exemplars and stories, but their dates are uncertain, unlike the lawcode, which can be linked to a particular reign.

An early Anglo-Saxon charter of King Wihtred of Kent.
Charter of King Wihtred of Kent, late 7th or early 8th century: Stowe Ch 1

From the mid- to late 7th century, texts written in Latin survive from the region that is now England. One of these-- the second oldest single-sheet charter to survive from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms -- does contain a few snippets of English. This is a charter of King Wihtred of Kent, written between 697 and 712, giving land to St Mary’s Church, Lyminge. The land is described as having ‘very well known boundaries’, including ‘barley way’ (bereueg) and ‘Maegwine’s path’ (meguines paed). These few words are possibly the oldest writing in Old English held at the British Library.

A detail from an early Anglo-Saxon charter, showing the boundary clauses written in Old English.
Detail of the boundaries with Old English names: Stowe Ch 1

Some of the earliest substantial texts in English in the British Library were written down at the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century. (Other institutions hold earlier examples, such as Old English versions of Caedmon’s hymn). One prayerbook made around 800 includes a translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Old English, along with other notes. It has also been associated with a female scribe or patron, so one of the earliest surviving examples of English may have been written by or for a woman. In the early 9th century, a gloss in Old English was added to parts of the 8th-century Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). From the later 9th-century, there are fragments of the Old English Martyrology, some of the earliest manuscripts in the British Library to contain text primarily in English. The earliest, 'complete' book in English that survives at the British Library may be the Tollemache Orosius, an Old English adaptation of Orosius's History against the Pagans, made around 900. 

A detail from the Royal Prayerbook, showing the text of the Lord's Prayer written in Latin with an interlinear Old English gloss.
Detail of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (in black ink) and Old English (written above the Latin text, in ink that now appears brown), in the Royal Prayerbook (Canterbury?, c. 800): Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 11v

Old English texts surviving in later manuscripts range from heroic epics, such as Beowulf and Judith, to legal documents. Scientific texts were written or translated into Old English, and parts of the Bible were translated into Old English. Many of these manuscripts are now available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

A page from the Old English Hexateuch, showing an illustration of Miriam and the daughters of Zion playing harps to celebrate the victory of the Israelites over Pharoah.
A page from the Old English Hexateuch, depicting Miriam and the daughters of Zion playing harps to celebrate victory over Pharaoh (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 92v

If you’d like to learn more about the development of the English language, among other things, please come to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can also find further articles about Old English and examples of Old English literature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval site.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript of Homer's Odyssey, showing the beginning of Circe's story.

The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

A detail from a manuscript of the works of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Circe and the herd of men she has transformed into beasts.

Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

A detail from a manuscript of Boccaccio's work on famous women, showing an illustration of Circe as a lover surrounded by animals.

Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

A detail from a 13th-century manuscript of Homer's Odyssey, showing a marginal note written in Greek.

Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

A detail from a 16th-century philosophical compendium written in Greek, including an explanation of the moral of Circe's story.

An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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