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As my colleagues at Exeter know, I have spent the past few years looking at the concept of news in the Middle Ages. I’ve been considering what the idea of ‘news’ meant in the medieval world, what sources remain for news, and what studies of news in the Middle Ages might tell us about news in other historical periods. And I think they could tell us quite a lot…
This is because the modern concept of news has become intertwined with the idea of modernity, of what makes the modern world distinctive. News is seen as a crucial component of modern democratic societies, a reflection of modern communications technology, and has even been used to discuss the modern experience of time. Early modern scholars are very conscious of the close relationship between news and modernity. As a result, they emphasise the foundational role played by early modern news in the creation of newspapers and the modern news market. In these arguments, medieval news is seen as something different and “other”. It is a foil for teleological narratives of news, progress, and modernity. But the problem is that we don’t know that much about news in the Middle Ages… So how can we be sure that it was different? And what if medieval news was less different than assumed? How might that affect our understanding of news and its relationship to the modern world and modernity? There is a problematic gap in the scholarship here. Further research is needed.
Despite the prominence of news as a topic for modern and early modern scholars, little work has been done on news in the Middle Ages. Various scholars have touched on this area, but few have thought about it in depth. This means that some of the most basic questions haven’t really been answered, including, for example, what does medieval news look like? After all, this is a period before the emergence of traditional news media such as newspapers. Getting to grips with the basics as well as thinking about the more sophisticated aspects of this topic has proved hugely stimulating. It’s rare to find such an obvious and interesting topic for which there is still so much work to do!
And, hot of the press this month, my article ‘News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187-88’ presents my initial thoughts on the topic. In this piece, I discuss why historians have been slow to tackle medieval news and how we can identify news in our medieval sources. I also explore how news was transmitted through a case study relating to the Third Crusade. I track the dissemination of three related news stories in 1187 and 1188: the defeat of Christian forces by Saladin at Hattin, the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, and the launch of the Third Crusade by Pope Gregory VIII. As a case study, this turned out to be both more complicated and more revealing than expected – but you’ll have to read the article to find out more!
However, there is still much more to say on news in the Middle Ages – and I have more work in the pipeline. Over the coming year I hope to complete two further articles on this topic. One will focus on the manuscript context of our extant news sources from 1187 and 1188, and draws on research funded by the British Academy Neil Ker Fund. Here I will grapple with the problem that none of our original news sources survive – all we have are copies. My article will investigate when, where, and how this material was copied, and what the act of copying tells us about the relationship between news and history in the Middle Ages. The second article will discuss the relationship between news and the medieval experience of time. This responds to arguments made in early modern scholarship about news and the emergence of a ‘modern’ sense of the present. As you might imagine, I am somewhat critical of this view…
In fact, there is so much to do that I have roped in a group of other scholars to help me explore this topic. From 2019 to 2021, I am leading a collaborative project on ‘News and News Cultures in the Middle Ages’, supported by a Small Research Grant from the Leverhulme Trust. This project brings together a variety of established and early career researchers with interests in communication, information networks, public opinion, and – of course – news. We are working together to produce a volume summarising what medieval news is, how it was disseminated, and how it functioned in society. It is intended to lay the foundations for future studies on news in the Middle Ages and to be the go-to work for scholars from other periods and disciplines. Hopefully, it will make this topic front page news!
May is an exciting month for Exeter’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As a part of Dr Levi Roach’s AHRC funded grant ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c.970-1020’, a series of events will be held across the University, and the Cathedral and its Library & Archives exploring Exeter’s genuine and fake medieval documents.
In the 1060s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, the canons at Exeter Cathedral produced a series of fake royal charters. These forgeries claimed that King Æthelstan of England (924-39) had granted the church multiple pieces of land along the Exe valley. These fakes tell us little about the reign of Æthelstan, but they do provide a fascinating snapshot into the concerns of the eleventh-century cathedral community and its leader, Bishop Leofric.
Medieval charters were created to record a transaction between two parties, such as a king and a church. As such, they capture the interests of both the donor and the recipient. In contrast, a fraudulent charter only represents the concerns of those who later forged it. Medieval forgeries can therefore provide us with a privileged view into the thoughts and concerns of the clerics who produced them. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the forgeries in the name of Æthelstan were created to try and enhance the church’s properties: none of the lands ‘Æthelstan’ supposedly granted in the charters were held by the Cathedral in the eleventh-century. Through these forgeries, the canons tried to provide proof of their ancient right to things which did not belong to them.
Forgeries can tell us about more than just a community’s nefarious ambitions, however. The ways they were composed reveal how medieval people thought about their past. Often, when completing fake documents, forgers would try and copy the style or handwriting of other ancient documents; they were aware that fakes had to look the part. In turn, the authorities invoked in forgeries reveal what parts of the past were most important to a community. At eleventh-century Exeter, it seems that King Æthelstan was a foundational figure.
Including the Æthelstan forgeries, Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives hold sixteen pre-Conquest charters – an exceptionally large number for a regional archive.
Between 13-31 May 2019 some of these charters, both forged and genuine, will be displayed in an exhibition held at Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives, titled Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter. The exhibition explores how and why the canons at the eleventh-century cathedral produced forgeries, placing their production in the context of changes within the bishopric and Viking invasions. Also displayed throughout the exhibition is the so-called ‘Golden Charter’ – a charter issued by King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ in 994 to the Bishop of Cornwall, in which the see’s privileges are defined and secured. While the contents of this charter are significant in themselves, the charter’s epithet comes from the fact that all its capital letters are covered in gold leaf. The charter is the oldest surviving golden single sheet charter from Anglo-Saxon England. This unique status led to the ‘Golden Charter’ being loaned to the British Library for the internationally acclaimed exhibition Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, held from October 2018 to February 2019.
Running alongside the exhibition are a series of public tours on Saturday 25, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see some of the Archive’s Anglo-Saxon charters up close. They will explore the motivations of specific Exeter forgeries, as well as the dynamic life of these documents in the 1,000 years after they were written. These tours are free, but numbers are limited so booking is essential – please sign up for tickets here.
The month of forgery events is rounded off by Levi Roach’s public talk, ‘Fake founders and counterfeit claims: the forged documents of medieval Exeter’, held in the Cathedral Chapter House at 19.00 on Thursday 30 May. In this talk, as well as discussing the forgeries produced at Exeter during Bishop Leofric’s episcopacy, Levi will place these fake documents in their broader British and European contexts. Again, this event is free, but please do book your seat in advance here.
Dr Jennie England, researcher on AHRC-funded ‘Forging Memory’ project
In June and July 2018, Julia Hopkin, an MA student in experimental archaeology at Exeter, spent some time in Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives, funded by the university as part of the College of Humanities’ student internship scheme. Her job was to create a guide for students (at all levels) who might be interested in using the Library and Archives for research. Here she talks about her experience.
We’ll be putting copies of the guide on the module webpages for the History dissertations other modules but otherwise for a copy please contact Catherine Rider (email@example.com). For more information on the Cathedral Library and Archives see their website.
Most people are completely unaware that Exeter Cathedral has a library or an archives, and to those unfamiliar with it, it might sound like a rather intimidating place, full of dust and uninspiring tomes. These ideas couldn’t be further from my experiences there and in my recent role putting together a guide to the Library and Archives’ collections, my aim was to debunk some of these misconceptions and make the extensive collections as accessible and unintimidating as possible, especially to students who may not have much experience with research outside the university.
The earliest contributions to the library date to the mid eleventh century, with the first books brought to the Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in 1050, and the archival documents have been accumulating from around the same time. Records and acquisitions in both areas are ongoing, and the topics covered by the material are almost bewildering in their scope. This makes them a gold mine for researchers in all sorts of subject areas – from Anglo-Saxon literature to local genealogy, 17th century medicine and medieval land ownership – but something of a daunting prospect for an undergraduate and for anyone (i.e. me!) trying to put together a brief summary of the collections. The L&A staff were as helpful and knowledgeable as always, however, and with their help I managed to find a handful of broad themes that represented the main bulk of the collections while appealing to student interests.
From there it wasn’t difficult to find examples from both the Library and Archive collections to illustrate the wide range of topics represented in the collections. Famous volumes such as the Exeter Book (a unique collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry) and Exon Domesday (a rare survival of local data collected for the Domesday book) were obvious choices, but other types of sources such as photographs, newspaper cuttings, and even the books and Cathedral buildings in themselves, as records of historical craft techniques and heritage conservation, also provide a vast supply of research opportunities. Many sources are also sadly under-investigated and could benefit considerably from research being done on them – the wax seals of bishops, monarchs and dignitaries from around the country attached to early charters being a particularly promising example.
I also made an effort to emphasise that there really might be something for everyone at the Cathedral and to highlight sources that people might not expect. Students primarily interested in international history might assume there was little for them, but when the library includes a whole range of bibles translated into Native American languages, relics of 19th century Christian missionary efforts, who knows what other research topics the collections can cater to? To combat the misconception that all historical material is dry and boring, I also included my favourite group of Cathedral sources, the Chapter Act books. Kept continuously from 1385 to the present day, these record Cathedral decisions and payments, often in minute detail. The records vividly illustrate life in the past in all its wonderful mundanity, from the orders of new hymn sheets and repairs to almshouses to the misbehaviour of choristers and organists – such as the fines given to Richard Dickinson, bellringer, who ‘through his own fault’ managed to break some of the Cathedral windows during a funeral in 1619.
As I began my research it became clear that not only was there entirely too much material to create anything more than a very brief guide, but also that introducing students to the process of researching in the Library and Archives was just as important as giving an insight into the collections themselves. Having volunteered there in the past, I was familiar with the peaceful location behind the Cathedral, the wall displays in the entrance hall interpreting the history of the Library and Archives and some of its treasures, and the quiet, book-lined reading room, but introducing it for other students has helped me to appreciate it in a new light. I suddenly noticed features like the wheelchair ramp and the browsing mode of the online catalogue, as well as all the potential research opportunities that appeared when I started looking at them from the perspective of other researchers coming for the first time. Describing the process of making an enquiry and trying to emphasise how welcoming and knowledgeable the staff are has made me realize how lucky we are as Exeter students and residents to have such an amazing resource freely available to all of us and right on our doorstep.
I hope that the guide will make the Library and Archives’ material more widely used by Exeter students. There is a huge amount of material that could not only really enhance student’s work, but also would benefit from more attention and research work done with it. There is so much to be gained on both sides and both I and the Library and Archives’ staff would be delighted if even a handful of students turned their interest and expertise to these collections. This has been an extremely rewarding project for me, and I hope it continues to be of value to others for the years to come.
Julia Hopkin, MA Experimental Archaeology
A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday 17th March, a few staff in the Centre had a stall at the University’s Community Day to showcase some of the research we do relating to Exeter Cathedral. We had interest from people of all ages, asking questions about our projects, the pictures and maps we were showing, and about life in medieval Exeter more generally. Here is a short taster of the research by Sarah Hamilton, Oliver Creighton and me that was on display. We’re also in the early stages of planning a larger scale project which looks at the history, archaeology and manuscripts of Exeter Cathedral, and if you’d be interested in hearing more please feel free to get in touch with me.
Exeter Cathedral and its World: Sarah Hamilton focused on Cathedral MS 3518, a liturgical manuscript which lists, among other things, the saints commemorated by the Cathedral community each day. This includes the major Christian saints as one would expect but it also includes a number of more local saints from the South West of England, such as Nectan of Hartland and Petroc of Bodmin. Looking at these saints is one way to understand how the medieval clergy of Exeter Cathedral thought about their local history, and people had fun trying to spot the saints’ names in the images of the manuscript (surprisingly tricky: I never did find Rumon of Tavistock…).
Medieval Medicine in Exeter Manuscripts: I was looking at Cathedral MS 3519, a collection of medical treatises and recipes from the early fifteenth century, particularly some of the ones relating to pregnancy and fertility. Recipes like these are often striking for their weirdness (at least to modern eyes) – eating animals’ reproductive organs to stimulate men’s and women’s fertility, for example – but they are also a fascinating way to think about medieval people’s health concerns.
What Lies Beneath? A Geophysical Survey of Cathedral Green, Exeter: Oliver Creighton contributed some images from a geophysical survey of the Cathedral Green that he undertook last year with other staff and students from Archaeology. This was probably the most popular part of our stall, as people tried to interpret the black and white images and work out if there was a Roman road underneath the cloisters.
And if anyone wants to hear more about one of Exeter Cathedral’s most famous manuscripts, the Cathedral is holding an afternoon event celebrating the Exon Domesday on 17th April: see their website here for more details and to book.
Senior Lecturer in History
As an undergraduate, I spent quite a lot of time in and around Emmanuel College, Cambridge. One of my best friends was a student there, and in the spirit of putting inter-collegiate rivalries aside, we visited each other fairly frequently.
A not-insignificant portion of my undergraduate dissertation was written, as was his, in the throes of ‘writing sprints’ in his room, fuelled by gallons of tea and the constant reminder that the College canteen did excellent desserts. One place I barely set foot in, though, was the College library; as a member of another College, I wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway, and even the most cursory of tours felt somewhat transgressive.
It was something of a surprise, then, when I realised that I’d need to go back to ‘Emma’ in the course of my PhD research. At the moment, I’m investigating the tradition of so-called ‘courtesy books’ produced in Anglo-Norman, and specifically the text known as Urbain le courtois. Urbain survives in 11 manuscripts, ranging from the sumptuous and meticulously-produced to the altogether-less-impressive (such as MS Douce 210), but only nine of them have been edited. By the standards of many medieval texts, such comprehensive coverage would warrant a pat on the back and a sense of pride at a job well done, but in the case of Urbain, the fact that two manuscripts remain excluded from discussion becomes something of a problem. These two additional manuscripts – one of which, as you will probably have guessed by now, is at Emmanuel College – remind us that medieval manuscripts can often be characterised by what Bernard Cerquiglini has termed variance. Urbain is effectively a compilation of fairly pithy advice on how to behave at court – kneel before your superiors, don’t drink to excess, and so on – but the order in which an individual scribe presents his material, as well as the decisions that are made regarding what to include and what to leave out, can tell us a great deal about how the didactic process was imagined in Anglo-Norman texts. The two manuscripts that remain unedited could, I thought, offer valuable clues for unpicking the relationships between the various witnesses to the text of Urbain, and with this in mind, I realised that investigating the manuscript held by Emmanuel College in person would be an essential step in looking to understand the textual history of this peculiar piece.
For any manuscript to have survived to the present day is a remarkable achievement, and one that can be largely put down to the tireless work of the many Special Collections departments up and down the country. As custodians of works that are hundreds of years old, manuscript libraries are well within their rights to set their own rules about who can access their collections, and what you’re allowed to do with them during your visit. The rules at Emma are fairly standard for smaller libraries: no liquids or pens were to be brought into the room, and I was to be supervised by a member of staff at all times while consulting the manuscript. I was also asked to provide a letter of introduction, signed by my supervisor (and, in a charming throwback to an age before email, printed on University-headed paper). The only surprise came when I was told photography would not be permitted, a policy which many larger collections are increasingly relaxing in the age of ubiquitous smartphone cameras.
Before consulting any manuscript, it’s a good idea to look up its entry in the catalogue to get a sense of its layout and contents. Many medieval manuscripts, in spite of containing multiple texts, didn’t come equipped with contents pages in the way that we might expect today, and so the catalogue, whether it’s a fully searchable web database, a dusty print volume, or somewhere in between, plays a vital role in telling you where to look for the item that you’re after. In my case, the catalogue as I consulted it was an intriguing mix of the old-school and the modern, taking the form of a digital scan of the 1903 paper ‘handlist’, freely available through the wonderful Internet Archive. There are, of course, many things that a catalogue, print or otherwise, cannot help you to expect, and one of these was the remarkable dimensions of the manuscript. My eyes having somehow managed to skip over the small note on the size of the manuscript, I walked into Emma’s Special Collections reading room expecting to meet a book of similar dimensions to MS Douce 210: approximately A4 size, or possibly slightly smaller. What I didn’t expect was to be handed a book that could sit comfortably in one hand, measuring just 11cm by 7cm, into which the scribe had somehow managed to cram up to 200 words on each individual page.
This was my first time investigating a manuscript without having the luxury of a photo to fall back on later, and I have to confess that this constraint led me to interact with the manuscript in a surprisingly different way. My main task was the same as it often is when consulting manuscript versions of texts – transcribe its contents for comparison with other manuscript witnesses – but this time, I found myself transcribing in a much more conservative manner. Abbreviations were left unexpanded: for now, the question of whether qe .referred to q[e] or to q[ue] would have to wait, as I sought to record as much information as possible, as accurately as possible. In short, I realised, I was trying to create a photograph without actually taking my phone out of my pocket. This kind of ‘slow photography’, however, was in its way more useful, and more engaging, than any 5000 x 3000-pixel JPEG ever could be: correction and every decoration, I was engaging with the manuscript in a much closer fashion, treating it as far more than just a repository of folia containing potential image data. It took me approximately 90 minutes to fully transcribe two and a half folios out of the approximately 200 that make up the manuscript, and in that time I found myself realising just how intricate, and how time-consuming, the medieval scribal process could have been.
There was, however, one more task for me to complete before MS 106 was returned to its box. One curiosity of Emma’s library is its own copy of the catalogue: readers consulting Special Collections are invited to leave their mark on this unique copy, which is printed with blank leaves in between each standard page in order to allow space for readers to add notes. These usually take the form of publication announcements, with pencilled-in additions indicating that (say) item no. 36 from a given manuscript has recently been published in the 2009 edition of a major medieval studies journal. Occasionally, however, a more personal story would emerge, and as I added my own note to the catalogue, one of these presented itself to me. While I was clarifying the contents of item no. 13 in MS 106, I came across a letter on the opposite page from a certain Ruth J. Dean, informing the Librarian that she has discovered details of the context to one of the pieces in this very same manuscript. More information would be available, she noted, ‘in my forthcoming revision and updating of John Vising’s Anglo-Norman Lannguage and Literature, which I hope may be finished in the course of another year.” If the letter can be dated, as the top-left indicates, to 1983, then Ruth Dean’s optimism about the speed with which her work could be finished was somewhat misplaced, with Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts not being published until 1999. Nevertheless, it was a great pleasure for me, as someone who uses Dean’s life-work on an almost daily basis, to add my own reference to Emmanuel’s catalogue using a numbering system that she herself devised.
Thanks to Dr. H. C. Carron at the Library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge for allowing me to consult MS 106, and to all of the Library staff for their warm welcome and willingness to answer my innumerable questions.
Edward Mills, PhD Student, Modern Languages
In my PhD research, I am looking at the local pasts that were communicated through liturgy in the tenth century in a metropolitan city on the Moselle river: Trier. My main corpus of sources consists of prayers, sermons, hymns and hagiographical texts, all of which can be found in medieval manuscripts from this area. In order to study these manuscripts, I needed to visit Trier itself, as they were not digitized yet. Visiting the epicentre of my research, however, proved more fruitful than I had imagined.
Architecturally, the city of Trier is a strange mix of every period from the last two millennia. The Porta Nigra and a basilica from the time of Constantine the Great represent the Roman past, the cathedral and market square
represent the High Middle Ages, and numerous churches and monasteries in and around the city were rebuilt in the course of history. The city breathes its own past on every corner. It was very useful to be inside my ‘object of study’ for many reasons, not least for its insights into the local religious communities of tenth-century Trier.
Firstly, I could physically measure the distance between the religious centres of the city. Even though many churches and monasteries have changed considerably over the last thousand years, the location of these centres did not. Being able to walk from the (still-in-use) monastic centre of St. Eucharius to the cathedral in half an hour, and then going another ten minutes to the royal abbey of St. Maximin and the canonical centre of St. Paulin, I got a clear grasp of how close these centres were to each other. This would have made interaction between the different centres very likely.
Another advantage of being at the ‘crime scene’ of my research is the availability of material culture. Studying liturgical sources, I was delighted to go into the Dom Schatzkammer, where golden reliquaries just sat there, waiting to be studied. Another obligatory visit was, of course, to the Stadtbibliothek, a modern building where the medieval manuscripts are kept. After having had a look at the beautifully illuminated Ottonian manuscripts – a local guide was very keen on explaining their greatness – I got to see my original incentive for visiting Trier.
Not only the artefacts and manuscripts, but also the lay-out of churches and monasteries were enlightening. Most of the time that is… Most bizarre was my visit to the royal abbey of St. Maximin. This monastery had been enormous and thriving in the tenth century. Now, however, most of the monastic buildings are gone, and the church itself – rebuilt in the seventeenth century – functions as a gym for the local secondary school. Gym mattresses were protecting the students from painfully bumping into the massive columns of the nave, and a basketball net had replaced a statue of Christ in front of the apse.
Although in some cases, time had completely ruined the medieval ambiance, other places seem to have survived the test of time brilliantly. A large component of my research comprises the study of local patron saints, as hagiographical texts and prayers for these saints can tell us about the importance of that local saint and the role he or she played in local society. Visiting the burial places – the centres of local cults – was an important element of my stay in Trier. Entering the crypt of St. Matthias’s Abbey, and sitting down in front of the late antique sarcophagi of the first archbishop of Trier, Eucharius, and his successor, Valerius, I could not help feeling connected with all those monks and pilgrims who have been visiting this crypt to pray to the local patron for the past sixteen centuries. The feast of St. Eucharius is still celebrated by the local Benedictine community every December: continuity in its highest form.
Studying medieval history is not only studying primary sources and reading literature. Most importantly, it is an attempt at imagining a past society. This society is best understood, I believe, if you have a chance to be part of it. When I returned from my visit to Trier, I did not only bring home notes on the studied manuscripts and reliquaries, but also about the physical distance between different centres, and the ambiance of local cult sites. And, in the spirit of traveling medieval monks, I brought back the thought that – if nothing else – I will have saint Eucharius of Trier at my side on the rest of my intellectual journey.
Lenneke van Raajj, PhD Student on the HERA-funded After Empire project
There has been a huge proliferation of online resources for research and teaching in Medieval Studies in recent years, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of them all. So we’ve put our heads together and come up with a list of some of our favourites – though this is by no means exhaustive. We hope this will be useful to people researching at all levels but it may come in particularly handy for our second-year undergraduates, who are beginning to think about dissertation topics at this time of year, and for our MA students who are getting started on their dissertation research in earnest.
General Reference for a wide variety of topics and periods:
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a large (if slightly patchy) archive of translated sources; some are full texts, others extracts.
The International Medieval Bibliography (provided by Brepols, access through the Uni e-library search engine); MLA Bibliography (access ditto) – these are the two main resources for finding research that’s been produced on a topic. The latter is specific to Modern Languages research, the former is Medieval Studies.
Online dictionaries – for French, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and the DEAF (Dictionnaire électronique d’ancien français available in French or German only) are the best. For Latin, the DMLBS (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources as well as the online Lewis and Short. For English, the Middle English Dictionary (MED).
British History online is very useful for following up charters, roll entries, etc. The search facility is quite good as it has a wild card option, though you will need to anticipate the variant forms of a name in order to find everything relevant.
In French, but covering primary material in various languages including Latin, is arlima.net (Archives de literature du moyen âge). A good place to start when looking for lists of manuscripts of a particular work, basic information e.g. about authorship and length, or bibliographical suggestions. The completeness of entries is rather uneven (some are excellent, some are basically shells) but it is being updated all the time.
http://www.medievalarchaeology.co.uk/ Portal for Europe’s foremost society for the study of medieval archaeology; contains many useful links.
Pastscape: Online database for the historic environment in England and a key starting point for the study of any medieval site or building.
Digimap allows users to find and download Ordnance Survey maps of any date and scale; invaluable for researching medieval landscapes, sites and settlements and depicting them.
More specific sites that we like, in no particular order:
http://www.esawyer.org.uk/about/index.html and http://dk.usertest.mws3.csx.cam.ac.uk/ for Anglo-Saxon charters. The former provides texts of (almost) all Anglo-Saxon charters as well as summaries of modern scholarly commentary, alongside full details of all surviving manuscripts etc., whilst the latter is something of a companion site, which for those signed up provides images of almost all surviving single sheets, along with maps and other useful materials for teaching (and studying) Anglo-Saxon England.
The Monastic Manuscript Project site, especially the page containing a list of links to archives and libraries with digitized medieval holdings It’s presented as a resource for the study of early medieval monasticism, but, really, it’s of use to anyone working on medieval manuscripts.
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. An outstanding digital edition of an invaluable primary source for medieval political history.
Wellcome Images: database of images from the collections of the Wellcome Library in London. Invaluable for studying the history of medicine (European and worldwide) but also much on manuscripts, religion, science and more. The Library also runs a blog, with some good medieval content.
Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi – database of stories and motifs in medieval exempla, useful for finding references to particular topics or establishing which authors tell which stories. A French site but it provides some English keywords for searching.
Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France is one of the most significant recent digital projects in medieval literary studies – it explores the transmission and mobility of Francophone literature across Europe via a database of the manuscripts of six important textual traditions, including Classical material (romances of Alexander and Troy, Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César) and Arthurian romance (Lancelot, Tristan).
Finally, for information on French-language and Occitan-language material specifically, Jonas, the ‘Repertoire des texts et des manuscrits médiévaux doc et d’oïl’. Again, this is a resource which is improving all the time, and aims for exhaustivity.
Thanks to Helen Birkett (History), Oliver Creighton (Archaeology), Tom Hinton (Modern Languages), Elliot Kendall (English) and Levi Roach (History) for suggesting their favourite websites.
Catherine Rider (History)
In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.
An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict
Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedicti, itself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.
A nun’s vows
Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.
This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.
A symbol of continuity
In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.
Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL
Not all manuscripts are pretty. Many, of course, are absolutely gorgeous: one need only look at the British Library exhibition on the Royal Manuscripts collection from 2011, or the accompanying TV series, to be dazzled by phenomenal illuminations or intricate pen-flourished initials. There is, however, a real danger that in focusing predominantly on these examples of elaborate decoration and ornate pen-flourishes, we lose sight of the far more mundane works that are more representative of day-to-day book production in any period. Last year, there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding the popularity of the @medievalreacts Twitter account, which reproduces images from manuscripts without accreditation or acknowleding their sources. Aside from the obvious copyright and intellectual property issues in play here, one particularly troubling concern, voiced by Sarah Werner (and given some context by Kate Wiles in a History Today article), is that this sort of history-as-spectacle
…capitalize(s) on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened.
One response to this from medievalists has been to embrace those manuscripts which, by contrast, would struggle to find a place on any Twitter feed. Again, the blogosphere is our friend here: Jenneka Janzen’s 2013 article on ‘boring, ugly and unimportant’ manuscripts is a powerful manifesto in favour of looking at ‘manuscripts that get a short-shrift’. This kind of manuscripts – un-illuminated, un-illustrated volumes – may also have suffered from damage in the years since their compilation, further setting them apart from their Twitter-friendly counterparts. Such manuscripts, however, remind us that the medieval book was not always an accessory to be displayed, eliciting ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from an audience of impressed bookworms. As obvious as it may be, it is worth remembering that the ‘codex’ (the technical term for a bound book) was functional as well as pretty.
Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the value in so-called ‘ugly’ manuscripts, however, is to be found in the form of a manuscript held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: MS Douce 210. In comparison to some of the codices with which it rubs shoulders, Douce 210 certainly doesn’t attract many plaudits as Bodley 264 or Bodley 401. One rather acerbic nineteenth-century commentator commented that Francis Douce, upon purchasing it at a sale in 1700, ‘can’t have had to pay much for it’.1 It certainly isn’t much to look at: significant water damage has rendered parts of certain folios borderline illegible, whereas gaps in texts suggest strongly that individual folios, and occasionally entire quires, have been lost.2 Despite its ‘ugliness’, however, this manuscript – dated, albeit uncertainly, to around 1300 – is far from devoid of value. The value, by contrast, comes much more from its contents than from its presentation, as Douce 210, unlike the other manuscripts mentioned above, contains not one or two lengthy texts, but rather a much larger number of shorter ones.
This sort of manuscript presents problems for codicologists – scholars of the construction of the medieval book, interested in why certain texts were copied or bound together in a single manuscript. Is Douce 210 best described as an ‘anthology’, implying a degree of intention on the part of the compiler? Is it a ‘miscellany’, a term generally associated with precisely the opposite intention? Is it something else entirely, such as a recueil, a ‘composite book’, or a ‘commonplace book’? The debate surrounding the multi-text codex and how to represent it has rumbled on for many years, and has given birth to some truly terrifying article-titles, my personal favourite being J. Peter Gumbert’s ominous-sounding ‘Codicological Units: Towards a Terminology for the Stratigraphy of the Non-homogenous Codex‘.3 With Douce 210, the overriding impression left is one of unity, rather than randomness: all of the texts within it respond to a need to educate and instruct, a need borne out in texts as diverse as satires on the ‘three estates’ of medieval society, sermons on mortality, and the only surviving execution of the Corset, a commentary on the Sacraments commonly attributed to Robert of Greatham. If the dating of the manuscript to around 1300 is correct, then it also provides the earliest version available to us of the Lettre de l’empereur Orgueil, a moralising narrative warning against the ubiquity and temptations of pride.4 As an insight into medieval didactic practices – here conducted in both Latin and Anglo-Norman French – and as a vision of the modes of instruction that underpinned them, Douce 210 goes a long way towards demonstrating that looks certainly aren’t everything.
Edward Mills is a PhD student in the Department of Modern Languages.
Say hello on Twitter @edward_mills!
1 The commentator in question was Paul Meyer, one of the great philologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His less-than-sympathetic remarks (in French) can be found here. Paul Meyer, ‘Notice du MS. Douce 210 de la Bibliothèque bodléienne à Oxford’, Bulletin de la Société des anciens textes français, 6 (1880), 46-84. Meyer does, however, include a valuable table of contents for the manuscript.
2 This fascinating blog post from the British Library’s conservation team sheds some light on the ways in which manuscripts can be damaged – and how attempts to repair them can sometimes backfire!
3 J. Peter Gumbert, ‘Codicological Units: Towards a Terminology for the Stratigraphy of the Non-Homogenous Codex’, in Il codice miscellaneo. Tipologie e funzioni: Atti del Convegno internationale, Cassino 14-17 maggio 2013, ed. by Edoardo Crisci and Oronzo Pecere (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 2004), pp. 17-42. A useful overview of the debate over terminology can be found in Ardis Butterfield, ‘Afterword’, in Insular Books: Vernacular Manuscript Miscellanies in Late Medieval Britain, ed. by Margaret Connolly and Raluca L. Radulescu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 301-07.
4 The text of this piece, attributed to Nicole de Bozon, was edited in the early twentieth-century and is available online here. Nicolas Bozon, Deux poèmes de Nicolas Bozon : Le char d’orgueil ; la lettre de l’empereur Orgueil. ed. by Johan Vising (Gottenburg: Elanders Boktryceri Aktiebolag, 1919).
Books of Hours are perhaps the most familiar of all medieval manuscripts. Their intricate miniatures have become a universal symbol of European art and culture before the advent of the printing press – and the stock-in-trade for every producer of ‘traditional’ Christmas cards. They were the first books to be mass-produced: commercial workshops, centered on Flanders, with teams of professional scribes and artists, flooded fifteenth-century Europe with small-format volumes each in the same fashionable, decorative style but with the texts selected to meet the needs of the different regional markets. Buyers could be sure that their book would display the latest in continental artistry and at the same time conform to their own local liturgical usage. Despite being among the first books to reach right across society, from the educated, clerical establishment to the growing number of literate laypeople at the end of the Middle Ages, their generic nature means that it is rare for books of hours to offer direct insights into the men and women that owned and used them.
It is exciting therefore to find two examples which, with a certain amount of legwork, can be connected to particular places and people not only at one moment in time but also over several generations. Remarkably, both books are preserved in the same collection, the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. MS 76 is a Book of Hours dating from the third quarter of the fifteenth century, perhaps substantially completed in Flanders but finished – decorated – in England.
Soon after it reached England, it seems to have come into the ownership of the Lytes, a Somerset gentry family of rising status. Their growing standing in the county and, apparently, at court, in the early years of the Tudors is reflected in the fine manor house they built on the banks of the River Cary near the village of Charlton Mackerell. Lytes Cary – now in the custody of the National Trust – bears the arms – a chevron between three swans argent – of this successful family both in the stone reliefs of its facade and in its stained glass.
The same arms are found in MS 76, which also includes a short genealogy of the Lytes, tracing their descent from the time of Agincourt. The liturgical calendar also records significant dates in the family’s history – marriages, births, deaths – over the course of the sixteenth century. It seems clear that this late medieval book was passed from one generation to another down to the Reformation, and beyond. Interestingly, it was adapted to meet the demands of rapidly changing times: the titles of the popes were scratched from the calendar but the record family events continued as did, presumably, the use of the prayers and devotions. It seems the book was still a point-of-reference for the family in its worship well into the seventeenth century: the dates of the festivals observed in their home village are noted in a hand of the 1630s.
MS 140 is a book of hours also made in mainland Europe in the fifteenth century.
A West Country connection can be deduced from the inclusion of the proper lessons for the commemoration of Saint Cuthberga (d. c. 725), the West Saxon princess-turned-nun whose shrine was at the Minster Church in Wimborne, Dorset. The Minster and Cuthberga witnessed a resurgence of popular devotion in the early Tudor period and was Lady Margaret Beaufort’s choice for the foundation of a chantry chapel in memory of her parents. There is every likelihood that the book of hours was prepared for a pious reader with a particular devotion to the church at Wimborne. On the final leaf there is a late fifteenth century signature of one Richard Follette, who may be connected with the John Folet of Wimborne Minster who is found disputing property rights with another landowner in a document dated 1486 x 1515 (Kew, The National Archives, PRO C1/151/15).
Both books call for further study not only for what they can tell us of private devotion but also as witnesses to the West Country experience of the religious changes – and the continuities – in the years before, during and after the upheavals of the Reformation.
Prof. James Clark
With thanks to Tad Boehmer and Dennis Sears of the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library,University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.