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Posts Tagged ‘medieval manuscripts’

MS 22, f. 166v

Eagles teaching an eaglet to look at the sun. CCCC MS 22, f. 166v

Summer has finally properly arrived in England, and the sun has made a stronger-than-usual appearance in Cambridge. While we humans need to dust off our sunglasses, the eagle, as described by Isidore of Seville in the early 7th century, is capable of staring directly into the sun.

In fact, the eagle tests its young by holding them up to the sun, and if they cannot look right at it, they are cast out of the nest. This brought about the medieval allegorical reading of the eagle’s ability to look directly into the sun as analogous to Christ’s ability to see the full glory of God. Only the most worthy souls can be lifted up by angels and perceive the whole power of God.

This illustration is from CCCC MS 22, a collection of Isidore of Seville’s works, which includes one of the oldest extant copies of an illustrated bestiary made in England. It probably dates from c. 1150-70, and may have been produced in the North of England.

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March image

MS 171, f. 225v

Manuscripts from medieval Scotland are rare. This is the unique copy of a chronicle of Scottish history assembled c.1447-49 for Walter Bower (1385-1449), abbot of Inchcolm Abbey, on the island in the Firth of Forth, north of Edinburgh. The illustration here shows the funeral of Alexander III, king of Scotland 1249-86, who died following a riding accident near Edinburgh on 19 March 1286. He was buried at Dunfermline Abbey.

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Fight with the dragon, three devils on his back.

Fight with the dragon, three devils on his back.

It’s nearly Halloween, and accompanying days of All Saints and All Souls, so in many parts of the world people have been gearing up for the night by watching horror films, procuring masks and makeup, and generally revelling in the monstrous and terrifying. However, the thrill of pondering pure terror is nothing new, and medieval manuscript illustrations can be filled with grotesque images which accompany one of the most durable sources of horror in the Western heritage: the end of the world. While today we have zombies, plagues, or nuclear winter, which are directly caused by human folly, our medieval predecessors had acts of God visited upon the world in response to human sin.

The locusts and their leader, Abaddon, a huge demon.

The locusts and their leader, Abaddon, a huge demon.

The Book of Revelation and the Vision of St. Paul are contained in CCCC MS 20, a richly illustrated apocalypse from the early 14th century, with 106 pictures interspersed throughout the Anglo-Norman and Latin text. The content and style of the Anglo-Norman illustrated apocalypse developed in the 13th century, when theologians were concerned with the nature of eternity and history, and how they were related to the Bible. If the universe and the Bible were both authored by God, then understanding one meant a better understanding of the other, and a trend arose of attempting to match current events with Biblical ones. With the Apocalypse so prominent in people’s minds, stand-alone, heavily illustrated copies of the visions of the end of the world became popular in England. The illustrations shown here are just a tiny portion of the art in MS 20, all of which can be seen on Parker on the Web.

Hell-mouth and men hung on fiery tree.

Hell-mouth and men hung on fiery tree.

All images are the property of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unauthorised use is prohibited.

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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.

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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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May ImageThe autograph Chronica Maiora of Matthew Paris (c1200-1259), monk of St. Albans, is one of the most famous sources for thirteenth century English history. It is a history of the world, but is especially important for events of the author’s lifetime. The manuscript is in two volumes and contains hundreds of little drawings by Matthew himself. This picture shows the procession of Henry III, king of England 1216-72, bringing the famous relic of the Holy Blood to Westminster Abbey in 1247. Matthew Paris knew Henry III personally, and showed him this manuscript. Henry III had been crowned in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 17 May 1220. [MS 16, folio 216r]

MS 16 is currently on display in the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

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MS 291, f. 3r

MS 291, f. 3r

While today we simply have to struggle to adapt to the one-hour difference when the clocks change before enjoying a convenient bank holiday weekend, our medieval predecessors struggled to reach a consensus as to when Easter fell in the year, and how to pinpoint it. In the early Middle Ages, constructing a calendar was complicated not just by the need to make the lunar and solar calendars agree, but also to reach an accord between Roman and Jewish measurements of time, which were both crucial to knowing when Biblical events occurred in the year and across history.  In response to this, church scholars developed a combination of mathematics, theology and science, called computus, to determine the date of Easter, which was often the source of controversy among church leaders- perhaps most famously leading to the Synod of Whitby in 664.

CCCC MS 291 is a compilation of material concerning the reckoning of time, written at St Augustine’s, Canterbury in the late eleventh or early twelfth century.  Towards the end, it also contains a full Easter table for 1064 to 1595, a complete Dionysiac Great Paschal Cycle (532 years, the product of the 19-year lunar cycle and the 28-year cycle of days of the week).

One of the most influential computus texts throughout the Middle Ages, Bede’s eighth century work, De temporum ratione, is included in MS 291. In it, Bede discusses the solar calendar and how to calculate the Paschal tables. The text focuses on practical methods, and works through progressive mathematical concepts, beginning with basic methods of addition, multiplication, and division, and proceeding through different ways of counting time, including methods such as the Greek zodiac.

MS 291, f. 22r- Eostre

MS 291, f. 22r

Bede’s text is also the only witness to the name of the Anglo-Saxon deity who gave her name to the month of April: Eostre. Eostremonath was the original name of the closest temporal equivalent to the Roman month of April, and, according to Bede, was a time to honour the goddess. With the arrival of the Christian holiday, the Anglo-Saxon name was applied to the new holy event, while the Roman name gained precedence for the fixed month.

The texts contained in MS 291 thus cross through the disciplines of astronomy, myth, history, religion, science and maths- all in the pursuit of accurately celebrating Easter. Explore the manuscript yourself at Parker on the Web.

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