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

24 December 2016

Christmas Coronations

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Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was a season of festivities and celebrations, just as it is today. 25 December was certainly a high point of this festive season, beginning the twelve days of Christmas which would last until Epiphany. On three occasions in the early medieval period, the Christmas Day celebrations may have been more extravagant than usual: on Christmas Day in 800, 855 and 1066, merrymakers also celebrated the coronations of the very first Holy Roman Emperor and two English kings with interesting legacies.

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Blessing for Christmas Day in the 'Anderson Pontifical': British Library Additional MS 57337, f. 104r.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Rome. This was a momentous occasion in the Christian West, where Imperial authority had ceased to be acknowledged after the fall of the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. By the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne’s military success had left in him control of a large part of medieval Europe and he had acquired a special relationship with the Pope. By crowning Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Leo III was acknowledging Charlemagne’s secular authority and his role as defender of the Christian faith throughout Western Christendom.

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne being crowned emperor, in the second book of Charlemagne's life in Les Grandes Chroniques de France: British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 141v.

Another early medieval king to have supposedly been crowned on Christmas day is King Edmund of East Anglia, who reigned from 855 until his death in 869. Very little is known about Edmund'ss early life, as no contemporary written records survive from his reign. The first-known record focuses more on the circumstances of Edmund's death than his achievements in life. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ described how Edmund was killed by the Great Heathen Army of Danes which had recently attacked other parts of Anglo-Saxon England. This is the same Great Heathen Army which was fought off by Alfred the Great of Wessex over the next decade.

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Miniature of Edmund tied to a tree and being shot full of arrows by two Scandinavians: British Library Harley MS 4826, f. 4r.

According to tradition, Edmund died during battle with the Danes after he refused their demands to renounce his Christian faith. This refusal transformed Edmund into a martyr. Over the following two centuries, a popular cult developed around his memory and was centred on the church where his remains were buried. The town which grew around this church was so associated with the cult of St Edmund that it took on his name, becoming the modern-day  Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. In the 10th century, the monks of Ramsey Abbey commissioned Abbo of Fleury to write a Latin account of the saint’s life and early cult. This text was later translated into Old English by the Anglo-Saxon, Ælfric of Eynsham, a well-known writer of many old English saint’s Lives, homilies and biblical commentaries. Much of what is now known about Edmund's early life, including his coronation on Christmas Day, comes from these texts written up to 200 years after his death. It is therefore uncertain where Edmund was indeed crowned on Christmas Day, or whether his later hagiographers deemed this an appropriate date for the coronation of a king who would later be canonised.

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Beginning of the Life of Edmund the Martyr in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints: British Library Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 203r.

The crowning glory in our series of early medieval Christmas coronations is that of William the Conqueror, who was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. William’s coronation marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and the beginning of the Norman dynasty.

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Detail of a roundel of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340–1342: British Library Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5.

After his coronation, William set about establishing his authority in his new kingdom. As part of this process, he commissioned an abbey to be built upon the site of the Battle of Hastings. According to 12th-century sources, before the battle, William had sworn to build the abbey in order to commemorate and pray for those who died in combat. A detailed account of this foundation story was written at Battle in the 12th century. The page below is the beginning of an account of the life of William the Conqueror, and depicts William enthroned.

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Historiated initial with William the Conqueror: British Library Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22v.

It is extremely likely that these kings, or the people who wrote their legends, consciously chose to the crowned on Christmas Day. Those who celebrated their coronations on 25 December would also be celebrating the birth of Christ, the saviour and King of Kings. This would have added a sense of Divine favour to their rule, and secured their claim to that particular title. The sacred significance of this would not have been lost on the audience of these ceremonies, those who recorded them, and those who read about them throughout history.

Becky Lawton

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23 December 2016

The Medieval Origins of the Christmas Carol

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Most people today think of a carol as any song or hymn related to Christmas. In its origins, it is something both more and less specific than this. It is derived from the Old French word carole, referring to a round of dancers, singing and holding hands. What they sung was not limited to Christmas music, and musicologists often identify a refrain repeated after each stanza as the key feature of an early carol. Not all medieval carols were overtly religious, but most focused on the Virgin Mary or the winter holy days. The association with the season has been magnified over time, and it now less frequently refers to a specific musical form. So how does a carol get from a medieval manuscript to singers on a street corner, buskers on public transport, or loudspeakers in a shopping centre?

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Veni redemptor gentium: Cotton MS Vespasian D XII, f. 34v.

The oldest text still sung today that we would now call a Christmas carol is probably ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, by Ambrose (c. 340–397). Ambrose was once thought to have invented the hymn, although we now know that the form predates him. The history of Veni redemptor is typical of how medieval works become modern popular Christmas carols. In the Middle Ages, it was typically sung to plainchant, and was one of the standard pieces used on Christmas Eve. It can be found in many manuscripts in the British Library, including several that are online, notably Cotton MS Vespasian D XII; Harley MS 2961; and Arundel MS 155. (The Cantus database and the book Early Latin Hymnaries are great starting points for finding such texts in manuscript.) The idea of Ambrose as the creator of the hymn became so popular during the Middle Ages that a large number of poems ended up being associated with him over time; this is one of the few attributions to survive the rigour of modern scholarship.

Veni redemptor gentium in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

‘Veni redemptor gentium’ in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

In the English world, Ambrose’s hymn largely disappeared after King Henry VIII’s split from Rome, but benefitted from a revival of interest in medieval culture in the 19th century. It gained new popularity as ‘Come, thou Redeemer of the earth’, one of several well-known translations by John Mason Neale (1818–66), who was particularly gifted in expressing the meaning of his originals and matching their metres. It is today sung to many different tunes, but is most commonly paired with the music for another medieval carol, ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ (‘Unto us a boy is born’), found in the Moosburg Gradual of 1355–60, as arranged by Michael Praetorius (for ‘Geborn ist Gottes Söhnelein’). What reaches our ears today is the combined contribution of about half a dozen people over time.

Prudentius’s Corde natus ex parentis in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r

Prudentius’s ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r.

Another contender for the oldest Christmas carol is ‘Corde natus ex parentis’, by Prudentius (348–c. 413), a Spanish lawyer who became a monk later in life. Like Ambrose’s hymn, it has gone through many layers of filtering and waves of popularity. One can hear it today in several different forms, most based on ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ (another of Neale’s creations) or ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ (by R. F. Davis). The music is usually taken from the Finnish/Swedish book Piae cantiones first published in 1582, compiled by Jacobus Finno, largely from medieval sources. Purists might think this ahistorical; but even in the Middle Ages, words could be sung to many tunes from wildly varying sources.

There are many other medieval texts that remain today widely recognizable Christmas carols. Angelus ad virginem (‘The angel to the virgin’), cited by the Miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is unusual in that it is still frequently sung by choirs, but almost always untranslated; the Middle English translation, ‘Gabriel, fram Heven-King’, is much more obscure. The British Library’s collections include many early carols that almost nobody today has heard of, such as King Henry VIII’s failed classic ‘Green groweth the holly’, found in Add MS 31922.

Henry VIII’s Green groweth the holly: Add. MS 31922, f. 37v.

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’: Add MS 31922, f. 37v.

There is far more to explore in the world of medieval carols in manuscript. Most of the British Library’s holdings can be explored through the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. Research into these sources can unearth forgotten classics; The New Oxford Book of Carols was especially successful in stretching what had become a stagnant musical repertoire in the 20th century. Medieval carols can remain successful today because they are inherently flexible, are far removed from today’s commercialism, and encourage the spontaneous combination of many different traditions.

Andrew Dunning

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22 December 2016

A Reindeer Farmer at King Alfred's Court

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This is a story about a gift-giving man, who lived in the ‘north-most’ place and owned 600 reindeer. Sounds like anyone familiar? Well, he wasn't Santa, if that was what you were thinking. The man in question was Ohthere, an intrepid explorer from medieval Scandinavia, who visited the court of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century and told the king about his travels. We know Ohthere's story from a 10th-century manuscript held at the British Library, recently added to our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 47967).

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Detail of a deer from an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 76r.

Ohthere was a wealthy explorer from the area that is now Norway. He travelled around Scandinavia, including areas that today comprise parts of Denmark and Finland, and he sailed ‘as far north as whale-hunters ever go’. He later visited the court of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), where scholars were keen to learn about his travels. One of these scholars added an account of Ohthere's travels to the Old English translation of Orosius's Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). According to this account, Ohthere told Alfred about his travels, explaining that he was curious to see the extreme north, and that he wanted to hunt ‘horse-whales’, or walruses. Walrus ivory was a valuable trading commodity in this period, and Ohthere presented King Alfred with some walrus tusks when they met.   

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Detail of the North Sea from a world map, England, c. 1000-1050, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

Whoever preserved this story was also curious about Ohthere’s descriptions of where the Angles had lived ‘before they came into this land’ (England). Members of Alfred's court remembered that their ancestors came from mainland Europe, and they wanted to learn more about the lands which they identified as their own places of origin.

As well as describing Ohthere’s travels, the author of this account also described whale-hunting, uninhabited polar ‘deserts’ and different Scandinavian languages. For example, according to Ohthere, the Finnas and the Beormas both spoke basically the same language. The Old English account also described Ohthere’s economic resources, including a herd of 600 ‘tame deer’ called hranas, or reindeer. In particular, Ohthere owned 6 prized ‘decoy deer’, which the Finnas used to lure wild reindeer into captivity. The account also reported that Ohthere was ‘one of the first men on the land’ near his home, and that he received a tribute of animal products from the Finnas.

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Description of reindeer in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos (England, c. 1000–1050): Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 12v.

Our only written source about Ohthere is contained in an Old English translation of Orosius’s History, whose compiler edited and augmented his source-material. Orosius began with an account of the geography of the known world, which the Old English translator supplemented with extra information about Britain and Scandinavia, including reports by explorers including Ohthere and another seafarer, Wulfstan. This translation may have been composed in the late 9th century, and it survives in copies from the early 10th and 11th centuries.

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Beginning of the description of world geography, from the Tollemache Orosius (England (Winchester?), c. 900–950): Add MS 47967, f. 5v.

Although he may sound like a figure from modern folktales, Ohthere was, in many ways, a myth-buster. While King Alfred is remembered today for fighting Scandinavians (thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of Alfred, and other texts produced at his court), the story of Ohthere shows a different side of Anglo-Scandinavian relations in the late 9th century. At least one Scandinavian traded with the English and brought gifts to Alfred, and his knowledge was recorded and respected by scholars at Alfred’s court.

Alison Hudson

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15 December 2016

New Developments in Manuscript Viewers

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As regular readers of this blog will know, we recently announced an exciting new project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 400 pre-1200 manuscripts at each institution, generously supported by The Polonsky Foundation.

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Decorated initial ‘Q’(uid) in British Library, Arundel MS 60, f. 53r

IIIF and Search functionality

We thought that some of you might be interested in some of the more technical aspects of the viewer that will be developed by the project team. The teams at both libraries are meeting to develop the viewer, which will use the International Image Interoperability framework (IIIF). Both the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library are founding members of the IIIF Consortium, established in 2015, and have been involved in developing the IIIF specifications in order to promote a standardised way of presenting digital material.

Detailed technical specifications are available here, and are refined continuously. The digitised collections will comply both with IIIF image API 2.0 and IIIF Presentation API 2.0. One of the main goals of the new viewer will be the ability to display manuscripts from either institution side by side. 

We also plan to include a search and browse function enabling users to search for various types of manuscripts. This may be based on the functionality available on Biblissima, described here. Also like Biblissima, it is intended that the website will be bilingual in French and English.

The manuscripts are being digitised now, and we expect to make this viewer available in September 2018. In the meantime, as they are digitised and catalogued, British Library manuscripts can be viewed initially on our Digitised Manuscripts website and later on its successor, and BnF manuscripts on Gallica. At the British Library, we are intending to put up the first batch of manuscripts in the New Year, and we’ll be letting you know further details about this.

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The Annunciation in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 3r

Copyright and download

We plan to include download options for individual images or manuscripts, allowing images to be reused in the public domain without charge. Readers may be surprised to learn that most medieval manuscripts held at the British Library are still in copyright until 2039 under the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended). However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the British Library believes making available digital copies of this material to be very unlikely to raise any objections. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts website. Further details about this are here. We intend to make these images available on the same terms on the website to be developed by the project. 

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14 December 2016

Researcher and Writer: Old and Middle English

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The British Library is seeking to recruit a Researcher and Writer, specialising in Old and Middle English, to work on our Discovering Literature online resource. This is an 8 months fixed-term contract, based at our site in St Pancras, London. To apply for this vacancy, please visit our Careers website.

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An Old English text on animal medicine: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r.

Discovering Literature is one of the British Library’s most acclaimed curated online resources. Aimed at A-level students, teachers and lifelong learners, the site opens access to the Library’s literary and historical treasures, enabling users to explore the social, political and cultural context in which key works of literature were written. Following the launch of the first three modules of the project, the Research and Writer: Digital Learning will join the Collections team to work on the forthcoming Old and Middle English phase of the project. 

We are looking for a highly organised individual with excellent research and web-authoring skills, and specialist experience of using manuscripts and early printed books. The post-holder will sit within the Western Heritage curatorial team, but will also work closely with the Learning team. He or she will be responsible for researching and identifying collection material, authoring label content, co-ordinating the digitisation process and supporting the creation of article content.

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The York Mystery Plays, in Middle English: Add MS 35290, f. 67r.

The successful applicant will be required to research our collections relating to Old and Middle English, working in conjunction with the curators, Learning and Imaging Services teams. They will be expected to identify potential external partners, and will contribute to the promotion of the project. They will also scope and help to deliver an Adult Learning Course on Old and Middle English.

Essential requirements for this position are:

  • Specialist knowledge and research experience using manuscripts and early printed books relevant to the collections at the British Library, evidenced through a post-graduate qualification or equivalent.
  • Strong palaeographical skills relevant to working with medieval manuscripts.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills, in particular editorial and web-authoring skills, and evidence of writing and publishing to deadline.
  • Familiarity with British Library catalogues and catalogues of other major research libraries.
  • The ability to work both independently and in a team.
  • High level of time-management skills.

Further details can be found here (post number 01073). The closing date is 8 January 2017, and interviews will be held on 23 and 24 January 2017.

12 December 2016

Explore our Greek Manuscripts Online

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The British Library has now digitised and published online more than 900 Greek manuscripts. Alongside the digital collections of the Bibliotheca Vaticana and the Laurenziana in Florence, our online holding is one of the largest such repositories in the world. Available are high resolution colour images of each manuscript, including flyleaves and bindings, with an up-to-date description of its content and codicological features, and an extensive bibliography.

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Embossed silver and gold plate, depicting Chirst flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists, from the binding of a 13th-century Gospel book: Add MS 37007

The British Library's online collections of Greek manuscripts range from precious early manuscripts of Classical literature and science to Syriac-Greek palimpsests to the most precious monuments of Byzantine book illustrations and18th-century Greek translations of Moliere. This diverse content can now be explored online in three different ways.

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Depiction of the call of David to be a King by Samuel, in the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 27v

Using the Library's Explore the Archives and Manuscripts, you can search for any names, places and keywords — including authors, titles, scribes and owners — in the descriptions of hundreds of Greek manuscripts. Once an item has been identified, a link (“I want this”) enables the user to order the original manuscript to the Reading Room in London or to view its full digital version online.

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Another way to explore our Greek manuscripts is via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, which is also searchable by using various keywords. After identifying the chosen manuscript, you can immediately start browsing the images of its pages, which once would only have been accessible to scholars visiting the Library in person.

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A third way to explore our digitised Greek manuscripts is by using the Library’s new Greek Manuscripts website, which offers a free guided tour throughout the collections. Let our experts guide you through their richly illustrated introductions to themes such as Art, Religion and Scholarship.

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The so-called Anonymus Londiniensis papyrus, dating from the 1st century CE, contains a selection of ancient medical texts and is the most important medical papyrus to survive from antiquity: Papyrus 137

Most importantly, for those who would like to know which Greek manuscripts have been digitised at the British Library, a comprehensive list with hyperlinks is available here: Download Digitised Greek manuscripts in the British Library

Peter Toth

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10 December 2016

Ocean Explorers at the Institut du Monde Arabe

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Seemingly every day, new evidence comes to light of the extent of international connections in the Middle Ages. For example, the British Museum recently published the discovery of Middle Eastern bitumen used at the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial. How, then, did these movements occur, and what were their effects? The Institut du monde arabe in Paris is giving a unique opportunity to explore these questions with their exhibition entitled ‘Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo’ (‘Aventuriers des mers de Sindbad à Marco Polo’), running from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017. The British Library is delighted to have loaned two of our manuscripts for this exhibition.

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Ship atop a whale: Harley MS 3244, f. 60v.

If there is anything that everyone understands about medieval sailing, it is that it was incredibly dangerous. The only means of navigation was the sky until the magnetic compass was imported from the Arabic world, which was first recorded in the West in the 1180s by Alexander Neckam, then a teacher in St Albans. Shipwrecks were inevitable. One of the popular methods of depicting of a whale, symbolizing the uncertainties of the sea, showed a ship that had accidentally landed on its back, with its crew lighting a fire. This story is most famously told in the Voyage of St Brendan. Every year over the course of their seven-year voyage, his crew moored on the back of a whale named Jasconius to celebrate Easter. The whale in Harley MS 3244, an English bestiary from the 13th century, is a particularly vivid example of this motif.

Also starring in the exhibit is Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, the Itinerary of the Red Sea (Roteiro do Mar Roxo) by João de Castro. It includes a beautiful series of coloured maps, notably showing ships with many different types of sails, underlining their varied origins. Our manuscripts are shown alongside many other artefacts showing the influence of travel on pre-modern culture, from both the Middle East and Europe. In case you need yet another excuse to travel to Paris, now you have it.

Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo is at the Institut du monde arabe from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017

Andrew Dunning

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07 December 2016

Forme of Cury: A Medieval English Cookbook

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Anyone wanting to rethink Christmas in the face of today’s relentless commercialisation might look to the past for inspiration. People in the Middle Ages took Christmas much more seriously than some of us do today: the four weeks before 25 December, called Advent, were not focused on shopping and awkward office parties, but prayer and fasting (a less rigorous version of Lent). They also knew how to enjoy themselves more thoroughly: Christmas starts on 25 December, and lasts for 12 full days. If you’re curious about what this might have involved, we have new inspiration in one of the first cookbooks written in English, Forme of Cury. Its oldest complete copy, Add MS 5016, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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‘Chykens in hocchee’ in Forme of Cury, Add MS 5016.

Forme of Cury might sound as if it is promoting the wonders of Indian food in the 14th century, but this phrase might more accurately be translated Method of Cookery in modern English. It was likely written around 1390. The title comes from a preface explaining that it was assembled by the ‘chief master cooks of King Richard the Second’, who reigned in England from 1377 to 1399. The author explains that the book itself was intended as a means of instruction:

First it teacheth a man for to make common pottages and common meats for household as they should be made — craftily and wholesomely. Afterward it teacheth for to make curious pottages and meats and subtleties for all manner of states, both high and low. And the teaching of the form of making of pottages and of meats, both of flesh and of fish, both set here by number and by order; so this little table here showing will teach a man, without tarrying, to find what meat that him lust for to have.

Archaic language aside (a ‘pottage’ is a soup or stew), this might sound surprisingly modern to our ears, perhaps the beginnings of democratic cooking. But the book’s notion of ‘subtleties’ shows that it was hardly aimed at beginners. The chefs of aristocrats loved to make contrivances that displayed food in unusual ways: they might use sugar, jelly or wax to confect models of buildings, ships or eagles. Some foods might be disguised as something else, such as meat that appeared outwardly to be fruit. This was not so much a replacement of a teacher as an aide-memoire. Do-it-yourself handbooks were still in their infancy, and did not fully come into their own until after the introduction of printing.

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The Forme of Cury scroll, Add MS 5016.

The book is written in what might now strike us as an odd format: a scroll, as opposed to a folded codex, as the vast majority of our books now come. Not all copies of The Forme of Cury are in this form, but it seems likely that this was its original conception. We can only speculate on why this was done; one theory is that it shows it was conceived as something of a record of the king’s kitchen, similar to the pipe rolls, used in England between the 12th and 19th centuries for keeping the annual records of the Exchequer.

The combination of the book’s age, royal origins and unusual format have made it one of the first stops in research on medieval cookery. It was the subject of an entire BBC documentary, ‘Clarissa and the King’s Cookbook’. It also featured in our recent Treasures of the British Library series. The ingredients used in its recipes do not disappoint: it is the first work of cookery in English to mention modern staples such as olive oil, cloves and mace. There are also many spices that would in its day have been incredibly valuable, such as nutmeg or ginger, but today are widely available.

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Blue stitching joining the membranes of the Forme of Cury scroll, Add MS 5016.

Which of the 196 recipes in Forme of Cury should one begin with? The British Library's own Polly Russell met with London chef Ashley Palmer-Watts in 2013 to look at the book and consider how its recipes might work on today’s Christmas menu. They developed a modern version of frumenty. Many other reworkings of its recipes can be found in print and online. Pygges in sawse sawge, anyone, or perhaps cold brewet?

Andrew Dunning

@BLMedieval/@anjdunning