Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Lost manuscripts - more on what might have been lost

Last February I wrote two pieces based on a methodology trying to calculate how much is lost to us of medieval literature. They can be seen at Lost manuscripts and More about counting lost manuscripts I have now seen a new article in the Guardian which looks further at the research and helps indicate the scale of what has been lost but also reflects upon not only the quantity but also the quality of what is no longer available to us. That is an equally sobering matter and one that is less easily answered. The article can be read at The big idea: could the greatest works of literature be undiscovered?

Sunday, 26 June 2022

A coin of King Harald Hardrada of Norway discovered in Hungary

Live Science recently had a report about the discovery of a coin in Hungary that had been minted in the name of the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada ( born c.1015, reigned 1046 -66 ).

King Harald Hardrada - King Harald III - is best known in the British Isles for his death at the battle of Stamford Bridge during his invasion in 1066 ….and indeed is often seen, accurately or not, as the “last Viking”

The article about the discovery in Hungary of this small silver coin issued by the King can be seen at Silver coin featuring famous Viking king unearthed in Hungary

The cultural and economic links which might explain the presence of the coin are various. King Harald’s wife’s sister was married to King Andrew I of Hungary whilst there were trading links across Central Europe or along  the Volga route to Byzantium, or maybe it travelled with someone on the First Crusade at the end of the century. In such matters it was the value and weight of the silver that mattered, not who had issued the coin.

It has been said before that the life of King Harald reads like a novel with his travels to Byzantium and involvement in its politics whilst serving in the Varangian Guard, and his return to Norway as first of all co-ruler and then as sole King. As such he was an ambitious and assertive ruler who sought to acquire both the Danish and English thrones.

Wikipedia has a lengthy biography of the king at Harald HardradaThe physical description of him is interesting in that it does make him appear as a man of flesh and blood, not just a name as a stock-in-trade Viking. 

That Wikipedia biography is detailed, and once one starts opening up the links there is a diverting time to be had reading and pursuing other lives and topics. As a a group of articles they are very good, informative, detailed and well researched. Amongst these is BerserkerThis is explains the concept and reality of fighting as a berserker, that is unarmoured and relying upon natural or acquired superhuman strength, which King Harald is said to have done, ultimately unsuccessfully, at Stamford Bridge. It opens up for the reader the world of this type of elite Viking warrior. There are also good linked accounts of his contemporaries, including his wife Elisiv of Kiev, his second son and ultimate successor Olaf III of Norway and about his possible sister-in-law, the mother of Edgar the Aetheling and his sisters at Agatha (wife of Edward the Exile)

The history of King Harald Hardrada is not just that of Norway and of England but of the Northern world and of contemporary Byzantium. His travels and his marriage in the lands of Kyivian or Kievian Rus gives a certain topicality to the narrative.
Once again we have an indicator through the finding of one small coin of the economic and political links that bound the continent together in all its diversity in the eleventh century. Such a single tangible link with the past can be a means to open up our understanding of lives, of politics and military campaigns, of economics and trade in a seemingly distant era, and to give it immediacy.

The Law Code of King Alfonso X

Another beautifully illustrated post on the British Library Medieval manuscripts blog is about the BL illuminated manuscript of the Law Code of King Alfonso X  ‘The Wise’ of Castile and Leon ( born 1221, reigned 1252-84). King Alfonso’s younger half-sister Eleanor is well remembered in England as she was to become the first Queen of King Edward I. 

Known as “El Sabio” because of his wide and cultured range of interests and for his codification of Castilian law he can, perhaps, and anachronistically, be seen as a thirteenth century version of the “Enlightened Despots” of the eighteenth century - itself a highly problematic way of understanding their rulership. A better way of understanding the King and his reign is to see him as monarch of his own time, using his acumen and his particular skills and interests to further his rulership. Not a man before his time, but of his time. Wikipedia has a biography, with access to all the relevant links, at Alfonso X of Castile

The blog article can be seen at The Law Code of Alfonso X

The Westminster Tournament of 1511

The British Library’s Medieval manuscripts blog is always well worth looking at. A recent post on it looked at a unique item in the BL collection, the Westminster Tournament challenge from 1511, in connection with it going on display in an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

The Westminster Tournament was held by King Henry VIII to celebrate the birth of his first son, Henry Duke of Cornwall on January 1 1511-2. Sadly the infant was to die on February 22 but the celebrations that accompanied his brief life are outlined by Wikipedia in Henry, Duke of Cornwall

Had the young Duke lived, of course, the history of the English speaking world might well have been very different, as his father might well have had no reason to seek the annulment of his marriage to Queen Katherine and all that led to …..

The illustrated BL article can be seen at The Tudors in Liverpool

Friday, 24 June 2022

By-election ruminations

Probably unwisely, but nonetheless, I stayed up to watch the results in the Wakefield and the Tiverton & Honiton by elections which were held yesterday. I had some element of passing interest in both - I was born in Wakefield and raised in my nearby home town, and I have relatives in Devon and one of the reporters covering the by-election there is a friend from Oxford days.

Here are a few random thoughts which came to me in the wee small hours:

1. Were it not for two busy-body women Conservative MPs snooping over his shoulder to squint at what he was watching on his mobile phone Neil Parish would still be MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and the Lib Dems would not have secured a famous victory.

2. If the Conservatives had dropped Imran Khan as their candidate for Wakefield like the proverbial hot potato once his past was flagged up to them by his victim they would have still probably won the seat in 2019 with another candidate, and still hold it.

3. The last time Wakefield made such an impact on national politics was probably as a result of the battle fought there in 1460. Unlike the aftermath of that, so far, no severed heads have appeared above Micklegate Bar in York. So far ….

4. Whilst Bojo is in Rwanda perhaps he should follow his Home Secretary’s idea and claim political asylum there.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Today is the anticipated Feast of the Natuvity of St John the Baptist - as this year the Sacred Heart falls tomorrow on the usual day assigned to celebrating the birth of St John.

File:Reni, Guido - St John the Baptist in the Wilderness - Google Art Project.jpg

St John the Baptist preaching in the Desert
Guido Reno 1575-1642
Painted 1636-7
Dulwich Picture Gallery

Image: Wikimedia

Looking online for images of St John I was struck by the number similar of the Guifo Reni reproduced above which seem more concerned to depict a handsome male virtually nude than to convey anything of what he might be actually preaching about. Another fine example from over a century later is by Mengs:

File:Anton Raphael Mengs - St. John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness - Google Art Project.jpg

St John the Baptist preaching in the Desert
Anton Raphael Mengs 1728 -1779
Painted probably in the 1760s
Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Image Wikimedia 

Saying that is not to be in any way censorious or puritanical, nor is it to criticise them as paintings but just to comment on the extent to which the image had politely and elegantly moved away from the doubtless more intimidating figure presented by the real St John in the first century Judean wilderness and on the banks of the Jordan. There is more of that in the painting by El Greco:

File:El Greco - St. John the Baptist - WGA10548.jpg

St John the Baptist
El Greco
Fine Arts Museum San Francisco 

Image: WikiPaintings

If you do not want to travel to California then in Cardiff there is a lightly later version from the workshop of El Greco:

St John the Baptist
Workshop of El Greco
Painted about 1610
National Museum of Wales

Image: Wikidata 

In 2013 I posted The Nativity of St John the Baptist  for today’s feast. That has links to other posts I had written previously about St John.

Last year I posted about two later fifteenth century Aragonrse paintings that depict the story of the birth of the Great Forerunner in The Birth of St John the Baptist

Some years ago I wrote for the other of St John’s Fessts, that of his Decollation, a piece about six English medieval churches dedicated to him and for which in different ways I have affection or a connection. That illustrated article can be seen at Churches of St John the Baptist

I realise looking at it again that I should have included Merton College Chapel in Oxford as well. Researching images for this article led me to the website of a church that I clearly need to visit, the very impressive late nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic St John the Baptist Holland Road which does not appear to be as well known as it should be. The parish’s well-illustrated website is at About St John the Baptist Church, Shepherd's Bush, London

St John the Baptist Pray for us

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Seeking to identify the scribe of Domesday Book

The Independent reports on a project which claims to have identified the facts that Domesday Book was written by a Normandy born scribe who was probably a member of the monastic community attached to Winchester cathedral priory. The thing that is lacking is an actual name for the scribe.

That the writing up of Domesday occurred at Winchester should not surprise us - the city was a principal royal residence, the base for the Treasury, a long m-standing place associated with the processes of government. Recognising the text to be largely the work of one scribe is not suprising given the nature of the work and the desire for an accomplished, clear copy of the results of what we often today term the Domesday Inquest. 

Whether a name can ever be attached to the scribe is another matter but intriguing. I imagine most medieval scribes, and particularly monastic ones, were usually content to remain anonymous. Anonymity was perceived as a virtue and an expression of humility. Indications of artistic or similar self-identification were rare at the time - hence the fame of Giselbertus at Autun or St Dunstan’s little pen-portrait of himself. What eventually became known as the Civil Service appear usually to have been and indeed are content with discreet and polite anonymity.

Nonetheless if this interpretation by the researchers is correct it adds to one’s appreciation of the austere Norman work of the transepts in Winchester Cathedral - for the monastic scribe must have witnessed their building.

An Anglo Saxon pendant from Buckinghamshire

I have posted twice in recent days about the excavation of an important early Anglo Saxon cemetary at Wendover in Buckinghamshire. Now there is a report on the BBC News website of the discovery in the same county by a metal detector of a pendant from the same period. It is in fact a reused Roman seal, presumably from a ring, which had been reset as a jewel in a silver mount to be worn on a chain or cord.

The seal appears to be made from bloodstone, a stone for which medicinal and therapeutic properties were claimed in the ancient and medieval world. These are set out by Wikipedia in Heliotrope (mineral)

The pendant is described and illustrated in tree BBC article at Saxon pendant with Roman jewel found in field