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

01 July 2017

A calendar page for July 2017

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It’s July, which means 2017 is now halfway through — time to check in with the fantastic calendar of Additional MS 36684 for a look at the 7th month! If you’d like to know more about this Book of Hours, check out January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars in general, please see our calendar post from 2011. 

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Calendar pages for July, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 7v–8r

The marginal decoration for July is a riotous combination of brightly-coloured birds and butterflies, contorted human/animal hybrids, and a few marginal figures participating in warm-weather activities. The first is the man (or woman?) taking a nice relaxing bath in the lower left margin of the first calendar page.

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Detail of a figure bathing, Add MS 36684, f. 7v

The second figure, to the right of the labour of the month (more on him in a minute), holds what appears to be a candle in each hand, perhaps a reference to the necessity of making candles in the summer, while the days are longer, in preparation for the dark winter months.

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Detail of a figure holding candles, Add MS 36684, f. 7v

The labour of the month, dressed for warm weather in a short tunic and hat, holds the two handles on the shaft of his long, curved scythe. Within his architectural niche, he is pictured on grass, against a gold background reminiscent of the wheat traditionally harvested by July’s labour of the month.

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Detail of a labour of the month for July, Add MS 36684, f. 7v

On the following folio, below the many saints’ days celebrated in the latter part of July — including St James the Apostle and Mary Magdalene — is the zodiac figure of Leo in his tiny Gothic niche. Leo, traditionally a symbol of fortitude, looks particularly happy in this instance, and rather than being painted a usual golden colour, is instead a dark grey with white accents — likely to contrast with the gold leaf background. Leo is flanked by two green hybrid animals and their instruments, posted on either side of his niche.

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Detail of Leo, Add MS 36684, f. 8r

We hope you enjoy exploring the many figures and decoration for the July calendar pages in Additional MS 36684 – let us know your favourite! And remember, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. Stay cool, medieval enthusiasts!

Taylor McCall
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval 

30 June 2017

Making a good impression

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The British Library does not only contain books — it holds items from ancient Chinese oracle bones to Jane Austen's spectacles. Recently, I've been working with some of the British Library's collection of seals (the wax kind, not the animal kind), and have been particularly intrigued by the seal of St Edith (b. 961x964, d. 984x987), daughter of King Edgar, used by Wilton Abbey throughout the Middle Ages. The text and images on Edith's seal, which was seemingly designed during her lifetime, give a rare contemporary insight into the priorities, identities and possibly even the jewellery of a young princess in late 10th-century England. 

Edith was a member of the royal family and was declared a saint relatively soon after her death, but there are few contemporary references to her. She is not mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the most detailed accounts of her life were written almost a century after her lifetime.

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Detail of the seal of Edith attached to Harley Charter 45 A 36

Edith was the daughter of King Edgar (r. 958/9-975) and a woman called Wulfthryth. Wulfthryth and Edith both ended up in the nunnery of Wilton; Edgar subsequently married Ælfthryth, the mother of the future Æthelred the Unready. According to her later hagiographer, Goscelin (d. c. 1107), King Edgar arranged for Edith to be educated by two foreign chaplains, Radbod of Rheims and Benno of Trier.

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Detail of a witness list describing Edith's stepmother, 
Ælfthryth, as Edgar’s ‘legitimate spouse’, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter, England (Winchester), c. 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, ff. 30v–31r

While there are few contemporary references to Edith, one of her possessions may literally have left its mark. A charter for Wilton Abbey dated 1372 bears a seal in Edith’s name. The seal impression features 10th-century artistic styles and it may be an imprint of Edith’s own seal matrix. Here, ‘seals’ refer to wax impressions made with engraved metal or ivory objects, called seal matrice. They conveyed authority, assuring the recipient that they could trust a particular document or messenger. By the late 10th and early 11th century, many elite Anglo-Saxons may have had their own seals, including kings, nobles and churches. However, very few Anglo-Saxon seals survive; only 7 existing seal matrices can be dated before 1066. This impression of Edith's seal gives a rare glimpse into the sorts of seals that may have existed in the 10th century and how this particular woman may have wished to be characterised. 

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Harley Charter 45 A 36

The seal's inscription emphasises Edith's royal status: ‘Sigil Eadgyðe Re[ga]l[is] [Ad]elphe’ (‘The seal of Edith, the royal sister’). Edith’s half-brothers, Edward the Martyr and Æthelred the Unready, reigned from  975 to 978 and 978 to 1016 respectively. The term ‘royal sister’ may also be an oblique reference to Edith’s status as a nun, devoted to Christ the Heavenly king.

The use of the Greek term adelphi or adelpha instead of soror, the more common Latin term for 'sister', also tells us something about the way Edith may have wished to be portrayed. Edith lived in a time when learning and book production were being promoted by wealthy monastic reformers. Obscure, Greek-influenced vocabulary was particularly popular in reformed monasteries. Female houses are now beginning to be acknowledged in the history of the revival of learning with monastic reform, and Edith’s seal shows that she or whoever made it aspired to the standards of the learned elite and their expansive vocabularies.   

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Greek letters transliterating the phrase 'Explicit Liber Psychomachian', from a copy of Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 37r

The seal also depicts a woman, presumably Edith, as its central image. This veiled woman is probably an idealized figure, rather than a specific portrait. Catherine Karkov has noted that her pose, attire and accessories strongly resemble the miniatures of women in the Benedictional made for the monastic reformer St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (d. 984), which was probably made around the same time as the seal.

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Miniature of St
Æthelthryth, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold made by Godeman, England, c. 963–984, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It's a pity if the seal does not give a clear idea of Edith's appearance, because her fashion sense was legendary for centuries after her death. One of the most memorable anecdotes in Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Life of St Edith, written around the 1080s, describes Edith fighting with St Æthelwold over her elaborate attire:

‘Blessed bishop Æthelwold once warned [Edith], with her rather ornate habit… ‘O daughter, not in these garments does one approach the marriage chamber of Christ, nor is the heavenly bridegroom pleased with exterior elegance.’ [Edith replied…] ‘Believe, reverend father, a mind by no means poorer in aspiring to God will live beneath this covering than beneath a goatskin. I possess my Lord, who pays attention to the mind, not to the clothing...’ (Goscelin, Vita S Edithae, chapters 12 and 13, trans. by Stephanie Hollis, Writing the Wilton Women (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 42–43)

At this stage, according to Goscelin, Æthelwold conceded defeat. A fire at the monastery vindicated Edith’s dress sense: most of the nuns’ possessions were destroyed but Edith’s fine leather and purple attire was miraculously spared:

‘When they unfolded the garments, made of skin or of purple, and of the everlasting guardian, all the things were found to be as they had been before the fire, unharmed by all the burning… although, from the nature of their material, they ought to have been more inflammable.’

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Copy of the seal of Edith from Harley Charter 45 A 36, Doubleday Cast C. 3

Goscelin may have made this story up: it provided a convenient opportunity for him to compare the unburnt clothes to Edith’s intact virginity. However, he may have learned this story from the community at Wilton, to whom he was the chaplain. If so, the community may have wanted to remember a young princess who dressed exactly as she liked, regardless of a bishop’s disapproval. And the seal matrix itself may itself have been part Edith’s flashy attire: the later impressions show that Edith’s seal matrix had a large handle made to look like acanthus leaves, which could have been attached to a belt or a necklace.

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Detail of the imprint of a handle from Edith’s seal, Harley Charter 45 A 36

The nuns of Wilton remembered Edith for centuries after her death. Her seal was used throughout the abbey’s history, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The final document showing the last abbess of Wilton using Edith’s seal dates from 1536, about 550 years after Edith died.

Alison Hudson

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27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

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Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

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The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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23 June 2017

The language of love (and poetry and history)

Old Occitan or Langue d’oc, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours, was claimed by Dante to be the perfect language for verse. It is still spoken in southern France and in pockets of Italy and northern Spain. Early genres and themes first developed by the troubadour poets of Provence and the surrounding regions were adopted by French trouveres and German minnesanger. Occitan literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is arguably ‘a primary reference for the medieval literatures of what we now call France, Spain, Italy and Germany’ (Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours’ (2011)).

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The seven virtues and vices of lovers, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 227r

As we mentioned in a previous blogpost, the British Library's earliest manuscript containing Old Occitan is Harley MS 2928, probably copied in the 12th century. Many of our Occitan manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Breviari d’Amor, the Vie de St Honorat and the Somme le Roi  are the most popular surviving texts, along with Chansonniers or collections of lyrics, many of which were copied in Italy and Catalunya. Three of our 14th-century manuscripts, all from southern France, have recently been digitised; two of them contain the Breviari d’Amors and a third is an Occitan version of an illustrated almanac.

The Breviari d’Amors

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The author, Matfre, holding a large book from which he is instructing four crowned figures with books or scrolls, from the Breviari d’Amor, early 14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 7r

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The Devil incites people to the sins of robbery, lust, violence and avarice and brings disaster to a ship at sea, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amors is a poetic work composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292. Ermengaud described himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love. His work contains a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, seen as a manifestation of God’s love.

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The hierarchy of angels adoring the Trinity from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 30v

Both volumes in our collections are believed to have been copied in Toulouse in the 14th century. They are filled with remarkable illuminations showing God and Love at the centre of all creation. They are in a unique style associated with southern Europe in this period.

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The Tree of Love from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

Scientific topics focus on astronomy and meteorology, while spiritual matters such as theology, angelology, demonology, mystical anthropology, sacred and scriptural studies are treated at length, together with the art of living on earth, and the subject of human love. Love is the metaphysical link between the spiritual realm and the created universe.

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A circular diagram of the planets governing the days of the week, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 53v

For Ermengaud, angels are at the centre of many of the functions governing life on earth.

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The six ages of the world, with an angel in the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 58v

There is a third copy of the Breviari  in our collections and also fully digitised (Yates Thompson MS 31) but it is in Catalan prose rather than Occitan, and was made in Catalunya (probably Girona) towards the end of the 14th century. The style of the illuminations is rather different. There are some rather elegant images of Hell-mouths (always a favourite subject on this blog) that almost look inviting!

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The Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, souls in Purgatory, unbaptised infants in Limbo and the Damned engulfed in flames, last quarter of the 14th century, Spain, E. (Catalonia, ?Gerona ), Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 250r

The Abreujamen de las Estorias

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Synchronic table of kings and emperors of the world with Alexander the Great and Ptolemy from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  France, S. (Avignon); 2nd quarter of the 14th century (after 1323), Egerton MS 1500, f. 13v

Love, the universe and poetry were not the only topics of Occitan manuscripts. The Abreujamen de las Estorias (Egerton MS 1500) is a diagrammatic chronicle in Occitan, based on the Latin chronicle of Paolino (c. 1275–c. 1344), a Fransiscan friar and diplomat from Venice. It consists of genealogical diagrams with notes and synchronic tables of popes, emperors and kings, including English kings, and it marks the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Of special note is an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted in the almanac, with miniatures and maps of Antioch and Jerusalem. This was featured in our recent blogpost on the Crusades.

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A synchronic table of kings including King John of England, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Roger of Sicily and Saladin, with scenes from the Crusades, from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  Egerton MS 1500, f. 53v

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Map of Jerusalem from the Abreujamen de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, f. 49r

Brunel listed 11 manuscripts in Occitan then held at the British Museum (now in the British Library) and there are two more in our collections today. Of these 13 manuscripts, 4 have been digitised in full, as described above, and a selection of images of a further 5 are online on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Egerton MS 945: A liturgical collection in Norman French and Occitan 

Harley MS 3041: Eleucidarium with a page of lyrics in Occitan  

Harley MS 3183: A devotional manual from the Périgord 

Harley MS 4830: Laws of the city of Avignon 

Harley MS 7403: Religious texts, some in Occitan 

The remainder have descriptions in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue:

Add MS 10323: La vie de St Honorat

Add MS 17920: A Collection of Historical works, formerly part of Egerton MS 1500 

Add MS 22636: Thesaurus Pauperum and a collection of medical texts in Latin, with a fragment of a poem in Occitan 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

21 June 2017

Stay cool

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This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

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Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

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Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

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Bas-de-page scene of a hybrid with a panotii (man with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

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Detail of a sciapod,  from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

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Sciapodes from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

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Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were said to be born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

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A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 June 2017

Old Occitan at the British Library

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Old Occitan or langue d’Oc was a language widely spoken and written in southern France and parts of Italy up to the French Revolution. The name is based on the word for "yes": ‘òc’ as opposed to the ‘oïl’ (modern ‘oui’) of Paris and northern France. The earliest literary manuscripts date from the 11th century, though there was an earlier oral tradition, and written fragments found in official documents in Latin and responses in litanies date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

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The Lord in a mandorla surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, from a Psalter, Breviary and other theological texts, 1075–1225, France, S. W., Harley MS 2928, f. 14v

Clovis Brunel’s Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal lists 376 literary manuscripts in Old Occitan (excluding legal and administrative documents),  of which only 8 are from the 11th and 12th centuries, though many of the key texts were composed in this period.

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Text page of a passage from John’s gospel in Old Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 190r

One of the oldest surviving texts in Old Occitan prose is a translation of four chapters of John’s Gospel from a manuscript in the British Library's collections that has recently been digitised, along with many of our pre-1200 manuscripts, as part of the Polonsky digitisation project: Harley MS 2928

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Historiated initial ‘D’(ixit dominus), at the beginning of Psalm 110, of the Lord enthroned with a human figure lying prostrate at his feet, Harley MS 2928, f. 74v

This late 11th- or early 12th-century manuscript from southern France (perhaps the town of Solignac in the Limousin) contains chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel in Old Occitan (ff. 187v–191v). It is the only vernacular text in a collection of Latin liturgical texts including a psalter, litanies, prayers, and a book of Hymns (Expositio hymnorum).   

There are 11 historiated initials illustrating the most important Psalms. 

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Historiated initial ‘B’(eati) of a ?pilgrim with a staff, at the beginning of Psalm 119, Harley MS 2928, f. 77r

The section of John’s Gospel in Occitan, pictured below, relates the events of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet and Christ’s sermon to the assembled Disciples. The rubric preceding the text is in Latin:

Incipit sermo domini nostri Ihesu Christi quem fecit in cena sua quando pedes lavit discipulis suis

(Here begins the sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave at his supper when he washed the feet of his disciples).

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Text page with rubric at the beginning of John, Chapter 13 in Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

The Old Occitan text begins:

Avan lo dia festal de la Pasca sabia lo Salvadre que la soa ora ve que traspasse da quest mun au Paer

(Before the feast of Passover when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart from this world to the Father)

This short extract contains several examples of key variations between Old Occitan and standard French:

  • final consonants in clusters like –nt and -nd fall away completely (in standard French they are nasalised) to produce  ‘avan’ instead of  ‘avant’ (before) and ‘mun’ instead of ‘monde’ (world)
  • some words are closer to modern Spanish than to French: ‘dia’ instead of ‘jour’ (day) and ‘sabia’ instead of ‘savait’ (knew)
  • vowel sounds differ in many common words: ‘lo’ for ‘le’ (masculine article), ‘Paer’ for ‘Père’ (father) and again ‘mun’ for ‘monde’

According to Wunderli , whose 1969 edition of the Occitan text is included in the bibliography, the dialect is from the Limousin or Périgord regions.

The Old Occitan section are not the only interesting parts of this manuscript. The Expositio Hymnorum (Hymnal or Book of Hymns) is arranged according to the liturgical day and year and includes collects from the Gospels and homilies of St Ambrose and St Gregory. It contains 12th-century musical notation, or neumes, from southern France on ff. 127r–187v.

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Folio from the Expositio Hymnorum with 12th-century neumes, Harley MS 2928, f. 134r

4 full-page miniatures in colours, sadly rather worn (ff. 13v, 14v, 17r, 18r), precede the Psalms, which begin with the Prologue by Pseudo Augustin on f. 19r, 'Laus Psalmorum. Canticum psalmorum animas decorat'.  In one image, what appears to be of a kneeling saint, perhaps Saint Stephen, is being stoned by two figures in tunics, while  gazing at the sun, or perhaps watching a comet.

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A kneeling saint is stoned, Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

4 more full-page miniatures of scenes from the New Testament (ff. 15r, 15v, 16r, 16v), were added in Bologna in the 13th century and have been attributed to the ‘Master of 1285’ (see Conti, La Miniature Bolognese (1981)).

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Added miniature of the Raising of Lazarus, last quarter of the 13th century, Italy, N. (Bologna), Harley MS 2928, f. 15r

 

Harley MS 2928 contient un des plus anciens exemples écrits de la langue d’oc ou de l'occitan : il s'agit d'une traduction de quatre chapitres de l’Evangile de saint Jean. Désormais disponible en ligne, entièrement numérisé, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts, ce manuscrit comprend aussi un psautier, une ‘Expositio hymnorum’, avec neumes du XIIe siècle et une collection liturgique en Latin. Selon Winderli, il fut copié dans le Limousin ou le Périgord à la fin du XIe ou début du XIIe siècle.  Quatre grandes enluminures occupent les feuillets ff. 13v, 14v, 17r et 18r et onze lettrines historiées illustrent le Psautier. L’usure a parfois rendu ces illustrations peu lisibles, mais le style est distinctif.  Quatre enluminures furent ajoutées à Bologne à la fin du XIIIe siècle.  L’extrait de l’évangile (Jean, chapitres 13 à 17) raconte les évènements du Jeudi saint et le discours de Jésus à ses disciples lors de la cène.

                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

Alessandro Conti, La Miniature Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe 1270-1340 (Bologna: ALFA, 1981), pp. 25–26.

Peter Wunderli, La plus ancienne traduction provençale (XIIe siecle) des chapitres XII à XVII del’évangile de saint Jean (BM Harley 2928), Bibliotheque Francaise et Romane, D.4 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).

 

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14 June 2017

Written in the stars

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Have you ever read a pop-up book or a book with moving parts? Today, such books are usually associated with children, but a rather fiendishly complicated example has just been digitised by the British Library. This is a set of volvelles (moving paper or parchment wheels) and a parchment astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, the first officially appointed lecturer in mathematics in England.

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A volvelle and a tulip-rete astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, 1597, Add MS 71495 

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An astrolabe and a volvelle, London, 1590s, Add MS 71494

Astrolabes are used to measure the position of celestial bodies in the night sky. The best known examples are often made out of metal, but these parchment ones also work. Their latitude suggests that it was designed to be used just south of London. The ‘tulip’-shaped cutouts of the most elaborate astrolabe note the position of no fewer than 190 fixed stars. Astrolabes can be used for navigation, but the texts associated with these  astrolabes and volvelles texts show that they were primarily concerned with astrology. The text revealed by the astrolabe pertains to the 12 ‘houses’ of the zodiac. The positions of stars was used to predict the outcomes of illness and other such events. For example, the ‘fifth house’ is associated with good fortune for Venus but bad fortune for Mars.

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‘Thomas Hood made this, 1597’, Add MS 71495 

We know who made at least one of the astrolabes because he signed his name: Thomas Hood. Hood had trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and been granted a licence to practise medicine by the university. Between 1588 and 1597, when the astrolabe was made, Hood was living in London, teaching and writing about mathematics. After the Spanish Armada of 1588, English leaders decided that their military and naval commanders needed to broaden their grasp of mathematics and navigation. Therefore, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Lumley invited Hood to become the first ‘Mathematical Lecturer to the City of London’. 

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Detail of Andromeda and other constellations, Add MS 71495, f. 2r

In his lectures, Hood emphasised that it was important for all different sorts of people to know maths. As well as teaching, he also designed new navigational instruments such as Jacob’s Staff and a Sector and wrote textbooks on globes and astronomy. However, it seems that Hood really wanted to be a doctor. Although he failed his first attempt to get a licence to practice medicine in London (apparently he didn’t know enough about Galen), he was eventually given a medical licence by the Royal College of Physicians in 1597. Hood then became a doctor in Worcester, where he and his wife Frances lived for the next 20 years.

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A conservator carefully works on the astrolabe before photography

Digitising the astrolabe was a laborious process, since the instruments were designed to move and to be read from all sorts of different angles. The writing behind each of the rotating devices was photographed, so that it can easily be read online, and each rotating wheel or ‘rete’ was also photographed separately. The assembled astrolabe was then photographed, as well. This required a great deal of patience, skill and cooperation from the British Library’s conservators and photographers. Let’s take a moment to thank to them for all their hard work.

Thomas Hood's volvelles and astrolabes can be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Add MS 71494 and Add MS 71495.

Alison Hudson

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10 June 2017

Battles and Dynasties at Lincoln

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The second Battle of Lincoln, 20 May 1217, is one of the greatest English conflicts that almost nobody has ever heard of. The British Library is a partner in a new exhibition at The Collection Museum in Lincoln from 27 May to 3 September 2017 which hopes to change this: Battles and Dynasties. This exhibition brings together an enormous range of artefacts from the medieval to modern periods, celebrating the role of Lincoln in the development of modern Britain.

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The First Battle of Lincoln, 1141, in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum: Arundel MS 48, f. 168v.

Given the relative stability of the monarchy in the kingdom of England during the Middle Ages, it is easy to forget the many contests to the position of its kings and queens. We all know the bloody story of the Wars of the Roses, but conflict boiled over far earlier than this. Lincoln was a centre for this, as one of the prominent fortified settlements in the eastern part of England. The first Battle of Lincoln of 1141 saw the forces of the Empress Matilda capture King Stephen. At the second Battle of Lincoln, the future of the country was at stake as forces loyal to Prince Louis of France challenged the authority of King Henry III, still a child. Henry’s forces won the day, and he went on to rule for more than fifty years – but English history would have been different if the battle had gone otherwise.

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Peraldus, Summa de uirtutibus et uitiis: Harley MS 3244, ff. 27v–28r.

Lincoln was also a major intellectual centre of medieval England. Its cathedral school became one of the most prominent English centres of education in the late 12th century under the beloved teacher William de Montibus. His student, Richard of Wetheringsett, went on to become the first known chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste became one of the most influential writers of the 13th century. All these figures’ works feature in Harley MS 3244, which is displayed at Lincoln with its splendid illustrated version of a treatise on the virtues and vices, as applied to the armour of a knight.

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Great Bible of Henry IV: Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 163v.

Also on display are some of the splendours of courtly culture made in the midst of conflict. King Henry IV is generally known for his ruthlessness, thanks to his deposition of Richard II, but he was also a lover of books: the enormous Great Bible, measuring 630 × 430 mm, is thought to have been in his collection. England’s interdependencies on Europe did not slow even in the face of the wars at this time: the volume of Jehan de Wavrin’s Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre (Old and New Chronicles of England) in the exhibition, Royal MS 14 E IV, was produced in Lille and Bruges in the 1470s for King Edward IV, while conflicts over who should be the monarch continued to brew.

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Jehan de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 10r.

There are far more treasures to see in the exhibition. Also on display from the British Library are the Rochester Chronicle (Cotton MS Nero D II) and the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall (Cotton MS Vespasian D X). The collections gathered at Lincoln are a reminder that events maintaining the status quo are just as important as those that overturn it, and that culture can continue to flourish even in the midst of conflict. We hope that many of you get the chance to view our manuscripts in person.

Andrew Dunning