MS 285, f. 4r

MS 285, f. 4r

A Pontifical is a service-book for a bishop. This richly illuminated manuscript, probably made in London, seems to have been begun for Guy de Mohun, bishop of Saint Davids 1397-1407. It later belonged to Richard Clifford, bishop of London 1407-21. It includes the service for the coronation of a king, which Guy de Mohun would have attended for Henry IV, king of England 1399-1413. The miniature shows the king between four bishops. Henry IV was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Monday 13 October 1399. [MS 285, folio 4r]

MS 183, f. 1v

MS 183, f. 1v

Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, was king of the Anglo-Saxons 924-927 and the first king of all England 927-39. This is the frontispiece from the manuscript of Bede’s life of Saint Cuthbert which Æthelstan presented to the community of Saint Cuthbert, exiled from Lindisfarne in Northumbria, during the royal journey north to invade Scotland, probably in 934. It is the oldest surviving manuscript made for any king in England. The picture is the earliest portrait of an English king wearing a crown. Æthelstan was crowned in Kingston on Thames, one of the first recorded English coronations, on Sunday 4 September 925. [MS 183, folio 1v]

August has arrived and the ‘dog days of summer’ are settling in across Cambridge, as the rising heat and humidity remind us all of Cambridgeshire’s true identity as a fen.



The term ‘dog days’ arrived in the English language through a translation of caniculares dies, or the days surrounding the heliacal (sunrise) rising of the Dog Star, Sirius. It was a standard classical description of a time of year associated with extreme heat, lethargy, and illness. In the Iliad, Book XXII, Homer writes that, as Achilles approached Troy, ‘Old Priam was the first to see him, racing over the plain, his bronze breastplate gleaming like Sirius, the star of harvest, brightest of stars in the dark of night. Orion’s Dog, men call it, glittering brightly yet boding ill, bringing fever to wretched mortals’. CCCC MS 81, a paper manuscript of the mid-fifteenth century, contains Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and, Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica.

To see how the term reached English, we can look at The Red Book of Darley, the second part of CCCC MS 422. It is an English Missal manuscript, probably from the church of St Helen, Darley Dale, in the Lake District. Its Easter table suggest that it was written in the 1060s, probably circa 1061, and it is composed in a combination of Latin and Old English.

MS 422, p. 35

MS 422, p. 35

The table for July, on page 35, gives the description of the 13th of the month as, ‘Sce Myldriðe, dies caniculares’ with a gloss of ‘hare dagas’. This means it was the day of Saint Mildreth and the beginning of the dies caniculares, the hare dagas, alternately written as háradagas, which were the dog days. The etymology of this term is from the Anglo-Saxon word for the Dog Star, hárasteorra. The literal translation of the Old English would be Hoary Star, or perhaps Grey Star. This is an interesting example of translating sense for sense, not word for word- the glosser was most interested in identifying the ‘dies caniculares’ as an astronomical event, which was best represented by using the native term for the star in question.

The historiated initial of CCCC MS 75, f. 180v, depicts the shepherds seeing the star to herald Jesus' birth, and their small dog.

The historiated initial of CCCC MS 75, f. 180v, depicts the shepherds seeing the star to herald Jesus’ birth, and their small dog.

Translating caniculares dies into dog days seems to begin sometime in the early Renaissance period. John Trevisa writes, in 1398 ‘in the mydle of the monthe Iulius the Canicular dayes begyn,’  Lydgate uses the term ‘canyculeres‘ in 1430, and, in 1538, Thomas Elyot defines ‘Canicula…a sterre, wherof canicular or dogge days be named Dies caniculares.’

So why did ‘dog days’ win out to describe the tail end of summer and not just the loan word canicular ? Is it the imagery of the term- a panting dog drooping in the heat? Or perhaps it is its connection to our other phrases and words using the same root, like ‘dog-tired’ or ‘dogged’? Or maybe it is simply the alliteration and rhythm of the phrase, which would please the Anglo-Saxon poetic sense as well.

In any case, all we can do is wait for those first cool days of Autumn, and know that man’s best friend was only dragged into this muggy time of year through the naming of a star.

August ImageThe Vaticana Pontificum is a variant of a very ancient collection of pictorial prophecies, in which images of strange animals and mystical emblems could be applied to particular rulers or popes. This volume was made for Bury St Edmunds Abbey in the early fourteenth century. Suggested identifications have been added to the pictures in the hand of the librarian (and later prior) of Bury, Henry of Kirkestede (c. 1314-c.1378). The picture of a pope with a cow was captioned by him as referring to the saintly Celestine V, briefly pope in 1294. Celestine was brought up as a farmer and was dragged unwillingly from his rustic hermitage to be crowned pope, only to resign six months later. His papal coronation was in Rome on Sunday 29 August 1294. [MS 404, folio 90r]

July ImageThe Scotichronicon is a unique chronicle of the history of Scotland, compiled by Walter Bower (1385-1449), abbot of Inchcolm Abbey, now a romantic ruin on an island in the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh. The manuscript was made there for Bower himself, c.1447-49. This coloured drawing shows the coronation of Alexander III, king of Scotland 1249-86. The royal poet is addressing him in Gaelic, ‘Benach de re Albane…’ (‘Beannachd Dé Rígh Alban), ‘God bless the King of Scotland’. The coronation took place on Moot Hill at Scone on Tuesday 13 July 1249. [MS 171B, folio 206r]

MS 16, f. 42r detail

MS 16, f. 42r

Finally, after what seems like years of barely restrained anticipation, Magna Carta has officially turned 800. Like most 800th birthday parties, we’re celebrating it by looking at pictures from the subject’s wild youth, and exclaiming over how young it looks.

Corpus Christi College MS 16 is an autograph copy of Matthew Paris’ Chronica Maiora, which contains a depiction of the charter, with hanging seal, on f. 42r. Although the manuscript was created 30-40 years after the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, it works with Roger of Wendover’s contemporary account of the events surrounding the signing that forms the first part of the chronicle. The text of Magna Carta in MS 16 is not entirely accurate to any extant official version, as Wendover never worked with an original, and Paris never chose to carefully edit the text, but it is based on the earliest 1215 and 1217 versions.

This manuscript is currently on display at the British Library’s temporary Magna Carta exhibition, and will remain there until September 2015.

MS 59, f. 182r

MS 59, f. 182r

A later version of Magna Carta is to be found in CCCC MS 59, f. 182r. This early 14th century manuscript contains a variety of historical documents and short chronicles, and the version of the charter is the confirmation of 1225, which was substantially the same was the 1217 version but was confirmed by King Henry III and announced to be sealed from his own free will, which underscored its legitimacy in tempering the power of the king.

Finally, a late 14th century collection of English statutes which forms part of MS 377 contains the version of Magna Carta that was reissued in 1297, by Edward I. This is the final version of the core text, and the one that is still in statute today, albeit with most articles now repealed.

MS 377, f. 9r

MS 377, f. 9r

The manucripts at the Parker Library that contain editions of Magna Carta attest to the profound importance it had on medieval English scholars. It was copied and recopied, updated and provided with commentary, in a way that grounded its legitimacy and created the basis of its importance in later eras.

While the original text has long been outdated, the importance of a government based on clearly defined relationships between all parties has not. Honestly, for 800 years old, Magna Carta is looking pretty good.

June ImageThis is a late thirteenth-century French manuscript of the Chronique de Reims, an adventurous history of the third crusade. It belonged to the poet John Skelton (c1460-1529), who used it for instructing the young Prince Henry, whose tutor he was from c1495 until about 1502. In that year, Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur died, and Henry himself unexpectedly became heir to the throne, to which he eventually succeeded as Henry VIII in 1509. Skelton afterwards gave the manuscript to the new king in the unsuccessful hope of reinstatement in the court. Henry VIII was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 24 June 1509. [MS 432, folio 32r]


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