It’s been quite a while – and quite a distance – since the last entry. A time when academic investigation and life seems to have merged.
The project officially ended on 31 August. As usual in this business, its spirit lives on, and there’s still much work tying the loose ends of manuscripts. Currently, I am writing up the essay on Lollardy in medieval Scotland, based on the manuscript note of a few posts back. Trying to establish how the Bible made its way from Oxford to Culross, I looked at the movement of books between the two places, with the earlier evidence being probably the Iona Psalter (which has recently become a bit of a celebrity in the NLS, printed on coasters, chocolates (!!!) and worktops).
Digital resources seems to have been made specifically for this kind of statistical analysis. I was delighted to come across a digitised register of the students in the University of Oxford (available here for free, but you may have to email and explain your need). Identifying Scottish students who studied in Oxford and a bit of number crunching followed. The result was unexpectedly reassuring, offering a new solution to an ongoing problem – when did the manuscript make its way to Culross. I suspected that the exlibris was written c. 1400 – and the register supported this. It seems that the number of Scottish students in Oxford – the most obvious means of bringing manuscripts up north – fell sharply after 1400, corroborating my initial assumption (always a good thing).
And all this work hits a strong cord with me at the moment, as I started in September a new job as a departmental lecturer in medieval history at Oriel College. Still between Oxford and Scotland, I look forward to continue the blog as I work through the materials, and there is another article on Scottish Bibles to finish, and a virtual exhibition to finalise. More to come.
I am not one for the scientific explanation of miracles. Other do. Some of their suggestions I find more plausible (temporary blindness and medieval diet), others less (algae, volcanic eruption and the Ten Plagues). It is simply not my way.
That’s why, when recently asked at a paper in Dunfermline whether I thought St Margaret’s Gospel Book (click HERE for images, which I am reluctant to imbed for copyright reasons) had been the object of a miracle, I had to take a moment to think. The medieval account tells that while was the book was transported to facilitate an oath, it fell into a river. The book then laid open on the riverbed, the water playing with its leaves. It was later recovered and miraculously survived intact.
A few months ago I much enjoyed examining the manuscript in person at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. After looking at a few medieval Gospel Books, I was surprised to see how clean this one was. Not only showing no marks of submersion, but also lacking the staining typical of continuous use in oath-rituals (as in the York Gospels). In my eyes three options can explain the state of the book:
1. This is a miracle. Not an option I can take as an historian. But one I did raise at the paper, saying that if the book had emerged in this pristine condition after being fully submerged, this is probably a mircale.
2. The book was thoroughly cleaned during its time in Oxford. This was suggested to me by Richard Gameson (whose article ‘The Gospels of Margaret of Scotland and the Literacy of an Early Medieval Queen’, in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor [London, 1996], pp. 149-71, is a treat), and can explain the nineteenth-century evidence for the cockling of leaves, no longer evident today.
3. However, one part of the story kept bothering me. The leaves turning in the water. Why did the narrator choose to expand upon this peculiar feature? Why was it important to mention that the water reached individual leaves. One explanation is that they might have not. That is – to think of a Scottish Cumdach. These Irish book-shrines (see HERE) are ornate boxes, in which Gospel Books and Missals were often kept. Much like reliquaries, they became a container for sacred objects; and like reliquaries, they limited access to the book itself.
Could it be that the Irish influence on Scotland extended to this custom as well? That St Margaret’s Gospel Book was kept in a shrine, hence surviving its water ordeal and preventing further signs of use? There is no indication for this in our sources. The lack of sources from medieval Scotland, primarily of sacrists records, does not assist in validating this hypothesis. However (having just finished a chapter on sacred books and their bindings in medieval England), our modern reckoning of book binding does not apply to many medieval Gospel Books. Numerous examples from across Europe tell of bindings of gold and precious stones. We even know that Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, adorned her sacred books with gold and jewels as a sign of his love.
There is much to do before any authoritative claim could be made. But I suspect there’s more than meet the eye in this story.
Ploughing through the marginal annotations of the Bible from the country house (promising this will be the last post on this MS for the time being), I was struck by a short comment affixed to Ezekiel 33:6-7. It was truncated by the modern binder, and currently reads:
no[n] p[o]p[u]l[u]s t[erre sed]|
This is only a [revised with a suggestion from Laura Light] tentative transcription. Abbreviations and truncation render expansions indecisive. Other options are possible, and suggestions most welcome.
The biblical location is also of importance. Ezekiel 33:6-7 discusses the watchman, who neglects to warn the people in the face of a looming threat.
I’m still working to fill in the gaps – both on the palaeography and the use of these verses in anti-Lollard polemics. More to come soon.
Making my way through the ‘Aberdeen Psalter’ at the NLS, I was surprised to discover the rampant lion of the Scottish coat of arms on its first page (following the calendar). I was unaware of many other liturgical manuscripts from the later Middle Ages with a similar device, and the possible connection to the royal court is most intriguing. Keen to find similar manuscripts, Steve Boardman’s advice led me to the Book of Hours of James IV and Margaret.
It is definitely of a completely different kettle of fish, in terms of both quality and production (script, illuminations etc.). Both manuscripts, however, are a product of the Low Countries (though decades apart; more on provenance and illuminations soon!), and the the arms themselves are very similar – in both cases appearing immediately after the calendar.
Always keen to implement new technology, I thought of trying Google Image search on the relevant part of the image. Cut and
slightly aligned, the rampart lion was sent to the web. The results were somehow different than originally envisioned, and the best match is here below.