Monday, 24 June 2013

A fourteenth-century lawyer's handbook

Your blogger’s favourite item from Worcester Cathedral Library’s law collection is a fourteenth-century lawyer’s handbook. Unlike the law textbooks studied by the monks at Worcester Cathedral priory, this handbook was in day-to-day use in the courtroom. The manuscript, as a result, displays signs of heavy usage. Most eye-catching are the “medieval sticky notes” protruding from the pages. These are called parchment place-markers. The parchment place-markers are pictured below. They are very dark in colour, probably because the vellum has absorbed a lot of dirt from being touched.

Photograph, Statuta Anglie. Photograph reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

It seems probable that it was the lawyer himself who made these sticky notes. Upon inspection they appear to be small, rectangular pieces of vellum, folded in half vertically. Whereas modern day sticky notes have adhesive on one side, these parchment place-markers are doubly glued. That is to say, the left hand side of parchment-marker is pasted to the recto and the right-hand side is pasted to the verso. As a result a tiny loop is created that protrudes from the page, and it is this that the user touches to find certain sections. That the parchment place-markers are glued to both recto and verso may well be why they are, quite literally, hanging on almost six hundred years after they were made.

These parchment place-markers are, moreover, significant in so far as they reflect a different way of highlighting sections of a manuscript to what we usually encounter with monks’ textbooks. Tamsin Rowe, predecessor to your blogger, in her exhibition on Worcester’s manuscripts discussed the way in which monks used marginal illustrations and drolleries to highlight and refer back to important sections of texts, during their hours of private study. Here is a good example of a way in which a monk would highlight a section of a text. This little pointing hand is found in a fourteenth-century textbook, Averroes' commentary on Aristotle's physics, used at Oxford:

Photograph, Averroes, Commentum magnum on Aristotle, Physica. Photograph reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

By comparison, the parchment place-makers in the Statuta Anglie serve as more of a physical marker which would allow the medieval lawyer to quickly flick to the right law when in the courtroom. Unlike the Benedictine monks, the medieval lawyer who owned the handbook probably did not have time to casually browse to find the section he was looking for. The Statuta Anglie contains 37 different law texts, the first being the Magna Carta, the second being the Charter of the Forest. With such a large number of texts in a relatively small book (210 mm x 145 mm), finding a page could well have gotten you in a tizzy in the medieval courtroom.
Another aspect of this manuscript that I enjoy are the humorous illustrations that decorate its pages.  For instance, on  f.156 there is evidence that the lawyer may well have had a dull day in the courtroom, for he draws little pictures of sausage dogs in the margins and, what appears to be, an imp-like man who is either pointing at himself or on the cusp of picking his nose!

Photograph, Statuta Anglie (f. 156). Photograph reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Equally intriguing is how this fourteenth-century handbook found its way to Worcester. In the catalogue of Worcester Cathedral’s manuscripts, it is noted that the handbook was probably “used in the Hereford diocese, coming to Worcester after the reformation.”  The first few folios are dated at Bosbury in 1334. On f.286 v the name “Rocheford” appears written in a formal hand, and the signature has been dated to 1400.

Photograph, Statuta Anglie (f. 286). Photograph reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

The next information on the manuscript’s ownership is not until the seventeenth century; on f,.7 r in a seventeenth-century hand is written the name “Fransisci Harewell armigeri” of Birlingham. Birlingham is parish located roughly twenty minutes away from Worcester. The name Sir Francis Harwell appears on another book at Worcester Cathedral Library, a sixteenth-century printed law book.
Both books are thought to be donated by Sir Francis Harewell in 1676. A Thomas Harewell, possibly the son of Francis, is known to have donated books to the library in the 1690s. We know very little about either of the Harewell’s mentioned. An interesting area for research  would certainly be the Harewell family; an exploration of who they were, how they obtained this medieval law book, and whether they had any particular affiliation with practicing law (given that both books they donated to the Cathedral relate to practicing law). The pursuit of answers to these questions could possibly yield some interesting results.
If you enjoyed this week’s blog and would like to see the lawyer’s handbook up close then might enjoy taking a tour of the library. From 5th-31st of August, we will be running two tours daily. The cost is £5.00 per person (£2.50 for under 16s).
See the August 2013 events section for more details.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Medieval productions of Robin Hood

One of the treasures of Worcester Cathedral Library is the Journal of Prior William More.  This is a handwritten weekly account book for the years 1517 to 1535 kept by William More, who was the penultimate Prior of Worcester before the dissolution of the Monastery.  Surprisingly, for an account book, it offers a unique insight into a more light hearted side of Monastic life, and provides an uncommon amount of detail on monastic feasts and entertainment.

Photograph, Avi , Monastic Register. Close-up of a decorated letter ('R') depicts a number of figures including a lute player or possibly minstrel. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral, (U.K.)

The religious year was laid out as a series of festivals, saints' feast days and holy days so there was always an excuse for a celebration.  For instance the Prior celebrated St Thomas's Day[6th July] in 1529 with a bonfire at Crowle and to help the party go with a bang he spent threepence on 'kakes' and to wash those down there was a 'potell [four pints] and a quarte [two pints] of red wyne' and a 'potell of sacke'.  This was in no way unusual as he celebrated Christmas dinner 1520 with a 'quarte of mawmesey', a 'potell of rumney' and a 'potell of osey' and the meal was accompanied by carols and William the 'Lewter' playing for guests.

Entertainment played a large part in late medieval celebrations and the accounts list over two hundred payments or donations to entertainers that include among others; jugglers, bearwards, tumblers, minstrels, players, singers and dancers. 

While some are donations made to support parish groups others are payments made to entertainers who were brought to the Priory or one of the Prior's houses to entertain him and his guests.  For one day's entertainment alone at Battanhall he lists, rewards to “singers on ye dedicacion day in ye morenyng” and for later on that day, “William slye & his compeny beyng the quenes pleyers” and also the “Dewke of suffolke[s] mynstrell” and let us not forget the payment for “wyne”.

Robin Hood seems to have been one of Prior Moore’s favourites. He contributed a substantive forty pence to the town of Tewksbury to support their Robin Hood event. He also paid the villagers of Cleeve six shillings and eight pence “in rewardes” for travelling to his house at Crowle and “pleying with Robyn Whot Mayde Marion”.  Another entry lists twelve pence to “certen yong men of seynt Elyns that pleyd Robyn whod”.  Although I leave you to decide if the twelve pence to “Robyn Whod & little John of Ombursley” are players or the real people.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

A manuscript without glitz or glamour

Conservative. Inexpensive. Modestly decorated. These are three terms that pop-up frequently in discussions of the late Saxon and Anglo-Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester.  This week your blogger considers how we read and understand a medieval manuscript that is sparsely illuminated or even undecorated.

If you enjoy the glitz and the glamour of a beautiful illuminated manuscript then it’s true, Worcester was producing some plain looking manuscripts from the late tenth-century to the middle of the twelfth-century. Let's take as an example the Expositio libri comitis: a manuscript which contains writings by Smaragdus (a Benedictine monk from the Diocese of Verdun).

Photograph, Exposito libri comitis. Photograph by Mr Christopher Guy, Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist. Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The scribe’s name has been identified from another Worcester book , now held at the British Library, as Sistan. Sistan exemplifies a typical scribe employed by Worcester at the end of the tenth-century. The script he uses is called Caroline miniscule. This script developed from the earlier Saxon Insular miniscule, and retained some if its features (such as wedge shaped ascenders). Sistan’s script is quite easy to read, this is because it is quite bold or heavy handed. Yet the quality of Sistan’s work is far from perfect, and there is a great deal of variation in the quality of his hand between manuscripts and even within the same manuscript.

In the Exposito libri comitis, for example, Sistan appears to have ruled lines but occasionally gone a bit wonky when copying; there are even instances within this manuscript where he seems to have written across the lines rather than on them. In the close-up below, you can see that he’s gone over the line ruled in the right-hand margin.
Photograph, Exposito Libri Comitis. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Sistan aside, the Exposito libri comitis fails to leave onlookers gobsmacked primarily because it is undecorated. Academics and medieval enthusiasts alike emphasize decoration as an important aspect to medieval book production. Rightly so, manuscripts should always be considered the product of a collaborative project between patrons, scribes, decorators and binders. The sheer cost of manuscript decoration alone in the middle ages seems evidence enough that patrons considered visual appearance (letters, colours, pictures) as important as the text itself.

In the case of an undecorated text, like the Exposito libri comitis, should we therefore assume that the text was considered unimportant or was cheaply produced?

That the Exposito libri comitis is undecorated actually tells us some important information about the contact Worcester had with other centres of manuscript production (English and continental) during this period. Richard Gameson, who writes an excellent chapter on Worcester’s book production in St. Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence (London: Leicester University Press, 1996), stresses that during the episcopate of St. Oswald (961-92) Fleury was probably Worcester’s main source for exemplars (“standard” versions of the texts that the scribe copied from). Gameson describes Fleury as “a centre of reform and scholarship” and “an important potential source of text and script models”. Fleury was not, however, renowned for its illumination and this might explain the blandness or sparseness of decoration in late Saxon and early Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester, such as the Exposito libri comitis.
The Exposito libri comitis being devoid of any artistic stamp is, however, an extreme example of the late Saxon manuscripts produced at Worcester. Many other Worcester manuscripts were illuminated, particularly as we move towards the Anglo-Norman period. Illumination in Worcester manuscripts was nevertheless sparse in comparison to texts decorated in the scriptoriums of Canterbury and Winchester.
To end, I'd like to talk briefly on some of the decoration of Anglo-Norman manuscripts at Worcester. A psalter with commentary, which dates from around 1200, is a good example of Anglo-Norman decoration at Worcester. The psalter was decorated in two stages. Stage one was undertaken at the time of the psalter’s writing, and it involved the adding of initials in red, green and blue (see below).
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
It was not until thirty years later, however, that stage two of decoration began. In the second stage of decorationthe ‘Beatus’ initial, which marks the beginning of the text, was added as well two other initials (‘X’ and ‘H’) gilded in gold. The second stage would have been far more costly than the first given the large size of these initials and the price of the precious metal. Both stages are beautiful in their own right but all-in-all the psalter presents the reader with a hodge-podge of decorated initials. The two very distinct decorative styles do not visually gel well together.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
One interesting decorative feature of the psalter and other manuscripts produced at Worcester in this period, are these decorated initials (like the 'M' pictured below) with curious little foliate tails. Some are very plain whilst others include intricate lattice work.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Next Friday, I’ll talk a little more about these and ask whether one or more Worcester artist was employed them, and explore whether they present a unique Worcester style of decoration.