Mary Wellesley

Mary Wellesley’s Hidden Hands: Manuscripts That Made Us will be out next year.

Naked Hermit: Blessed Isles

Mary Wellesley, 5 March 2020

Medievalstories of paradisal islands had common tropes: the temptations of delicious food and delicious women; magical flora, like golden fruit trees; improbable constructions – ships made of crystal or bridges made of glass. A persistent theme is the unheeded warning. Characters are told not to kill cattle, not to eat the food offered by the host, not to come ashore, not to steal,...

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it.

At the British Library: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Mary Wellesley, 22 November 2018

The earliest fragments​ of the English language are likely to be a group of runic inscriptions on three fifth-century cremation urns from Spong Hill in Norfolk. The inscriptions simply read alu, which probably means ‘ale’. Perhaps the early speakers of Old English longed for ale in death as well as life. But, as the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (until...

Short Cuts: Making Parchment

Mary Wellesley, 30 August 2018

The work​ of making parchment is unglamorous, and sometimes it smells like the inside of a boxing glove: like cheese and sweat and hard work. There is only one firm of parchment makers left in the UK. There are places elsewhere in the world where parchment is produced, but the process is partly mechanised. At William Cowley’s – located somewhat improbably near Milton Keynes...

Diary: The Wyldrenesse of Wyrale

Mary Wellesley, 26 April 2018

When​ the eponymous hero of the late 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight enters the ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’ (wilderness of the Wirral) he encounters ‘wolues’ (wolves) and wild men called woodwose. On a trip to the Wirral, in late August last year, I had hoped for a woodwose and would have settled for a wolf, but found golf courses instead. My Ordnance...

No looking at my elephant: Menageries

Mary Wellesley, 15 December 2016

In 1735, the Duke of Richmond was in search of a sloth bear. He took delivery of an animal but wasn’t happy with what had arrived. ‘I wish indeed it had been the Sloath that had been sent me, for that is the most curious animal I know, butt this is nothing butt a common black bear, which I do not know what to do with, for I have five of them already,’ he wrote to Hans Sloane, who had acted as his buying agent. ‘I beg you would tell him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.’

From The Blog
23 April 2019

In an 11th-century English life of Saint Margaret, or Marina, of Antioch, there is a moment when she gets the devil in what martial artists call a ‘submission hold’.

From The Blog
23 April 2018

I recently came across an image in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library that made me think of Gwyneth Paltrow. The image, from a late 13th-century medical compendium (Bodl. MS Ashmole 399), shows a woman, who appears to have fainted, being attended by a physician and servants. One of the female servants is wafting a burning feather beneath the patient’s nose. Another is extending a hand towards the patient’s genitals. She is receiving ‘odiferous therapy’, whereby strong-smelling substances were wafted under the nose and the vagina.

From The Blog
4 August 2016

Underneath the A310 in Twickenham, in the grounds of Radnor House prep school, lies the grotto of Alexander Pope. It once looked out over the Thames, but now its view takes in the walls of the sixth-form art block and an astroturf sports pitch. But the magic of what Pope called his ‘shadowy cave’ is not lost. The grotto smells of flint. Its walls are encrusted with geological curiosities. There is a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.

From The Blog
27 April 2016

Hieronymus Bosch painted clog ships, fish soldiers, armoured creatures with insect wings and scales gobbling human limbs. In the recesses of his paintings you might find a spoonbill, wearing a hooded cape, sitting down to a supper of bird-claw at a table set with white linen and pewterware. His picture of Saint Wilgefortis – usually in the Accademia in Venice, but currently on display at an exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the town where he lived and worked – is perhaps one of his least strange paintings. It shows a bearded woman being crucified.

From The Blog
24 August 2015

Northumbria police have launched an investigation after a photo was posted on Facebook of a man apparently strangling a seagull. Councillors in seaside towns are considering using drones to kill seagull chicks in their nests. Although the numbers of most gull species in the UK are in decline, they have an 'increasing presence in urban areas'. The RSPCA is looking into reports that people in Cornwall are attacking gulls with fishing line. Meanwhile the birds have been accused of attacking people and killing pets, and in Namibia they've been spotted pecking out the eyes of baby seals, as if they weren't already hated enough.

From The Blog
23 June 2015

I recently heard a couple of stories about health and safety suggestions made by children’s book editors. They are often along the lines of ‘we’re concerned that the character is in danger here,’ but breast-feeding was also a no-no in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds. The most famous editor as moral policeman is Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 produced his Family Shakspeare [sic]. He was from a long line of Shakespeare sanitisers. A copy of the Second Folio now in the Folger Library in Washington preserves the often frustrated expurgatory efforts of William Sankey (signing himself Guillermo Sanchez), a 17th-century English Jesuit; the edition came from the English College in Valladolid. The pages are covered with Sankey’s redactions. What I like best about the book is the total absence of Measure for Measure. I wonder how much of the play he crossed out before giving up and ripping the whole thing out.

From The Blog
5 June 2015

A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.

From The Blog
15 April 2015

In Granada late on Good Friday I watched a paso or float of the Mater Dolorosa making its ponderous way towards the cathedral. The life-size statue was dressed in a black and silver robe. She was swaying gently from side to side and looked like a beautiful beetle with the many legs of the men carrying her (the cuadrilla) sticking out from the black curtain underneath her. Their load was so heavy that they had to stop and swap out for a fresh crew every few hundred metres. The float was accompanied by a marching band, candle bearers, incense-bearers, the women wearing mantillas and black lace, the teenagers in chorister’s robes. Around the float were the nazarenos or penitentes who wear caperuzas – tall, tapering hooded masks – and often carry wooden crosses. The similarity to Klu Klux Klan garb is coincidental; the nazarenos’ hoods point symbolically towards the heavens.

From The Blog
14 February 2015

Don’t like Valentine’s Day? Blame Chaucer. Saint Valentine was a third century Roman martyr. We don’t know much about him. There may in fact have been two Valentines, one a bishop from Terni, the other a priest martyred on the Flaminian Way, though they may also have been the same person. Or possibly neither of them existed. The two hagiographies conform to the usual pattern: vicious Roman leaders in conflict with unrepentant martyrs who keep the faith. But no mention of lovers.

From The Blog
23 July 2014

The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, a programmer and open source advocate, in August 2007 as a way of flagging up the salient features of a tweet. He took the hash sign, which had meant ‘number’, and made it mean ‘important concept-alert’. The hashtag’s use in tweets has now developed a style and language of its own. They’re everywhere, punctuating Twitter and Instagram jokes, Facebook posts and other forms of communication. I like making stupid hashtag neologisms, but I’m probably not alone in feeling uneasy about the way they boil large bodies of information down to a couple of words. There is, of course, something brutally reductive about them, and the word ‘tag’ has overtones of criminality or pricing: available for search, available for purchase.

From The Blog
29 April 2014

Somewhere in the inner recesses of the British Library is a place called the Z Safe. The physical safe doesn’t exist anymore, though it did when the national bibliographic collection was housed in the British Museum. In those days it was a Chubb strong room beneath the west stairs in the Department of Manuscripts. Now, ‘Z Safe’ is a category given to the most valuable manuscripts, but I like to imagine it as still an actual place, a holy tabernacle in the bibliophiles’ temple.

From The Blog
16 April 2014

Before I ran the London Marathon on Sunday I was told that I would ‘enjoy the first 15 miles’ and ‘be buoyed by the crowd’. No such luck. It hurt from the start – I never hit the famous ‘wall’, just felt a steady increase of pain over time – and the crowd might as well not have been there, as far as I was concerned. I posted 3 hours and 37 minutes, which if I have some kind of memory lapse, I will probably try to better in the future. It would be ungrateful of me, however, not to recognise that it’s been a bit of a struggle in the last century for women to be allowed to compete in marathons at all. Women have fought for my right to feel that amount of discomfort. For many years it was felt that women’s bodies could not withstand the stress of 26.3 miles.

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