Culture: British Library offers readers 1,000 years of literary history

There’s life in these old books yet

The British Library is using digital technology to give our rich literary history a new lease of life online, but the general reader might want to brush up on their Old English first

By Mark Cantrell

The Book of the Queen
The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431), written by Christine de Pizan, the first female writer to earn a living from her work. © British Library Board

SOME of the works in the British Library’s latest endeavour are over 1,000 years old, which is staggering if you think about it; how many of today’s authors will still be finding readers – even if only academic specialists – a millennium from now?

Well, none of us are going to be around to find out, so we’d better the most of those that did, now we can browse some of the rich literary history that has somehow survived the long centuries that came before us. Meanwhile, those of us who are authors can certainly feel free to dream; like the rest of the general public, however, we might also need to brush up on our archaic language skills.

They speak a whole different language in the past, after all; certainly the further back into the mists of time we venture. Included amongst the collection, for instance, is the single surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English.

The British Library is making over 50 rare medieval manuscripts and early print editions available to view and read online – free of charge – via its Discovering Literature website.

Alongside Beowulf, the collection includes the earliest autobiography in English: The Book of Margery Kempe. Then there’s the Wycliffite Bible, which was the first complete translation in the English language. Meanwhile, William Caxton’s pioneering illustrated print edition of The Canterbury Tales demonstrates the startling shift to (then) new technology. Other highlights include:

  • The first work authored by a woman in English, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love
  • The earliest work of theatre criticism in English, Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge
  • One of the greatest collections of Scottish medieval verse, the Bannatyne Manuscript from the National Library of Scotland

“Discovering Literature is a fantastic resource, which enables the British Library to open up its collections to a broader audience,” said Dr Alex Whitfield, head of learning programmes at the British Library. “We are always trying to find innovative ways to help learners of all ages engage with the library’s collections and we are so pleased that such extraordinary collection items and valuable academic insight can now be accessed by anyone, anywhere. Ultimately, we hope that the website will enrich the study and enjoyment of medieval literature for a new generation.”

As well as the above works, the collection features extracts of medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles. Furthermore, it includes over 20 articles exploring themes such as gender, faith and heroism written by poets, academics and writers such as Simon Armitage, Hetta Howes, and David Crystal.

Discovering Literature is a free website aimed at A-Level students and teachers, but it also offers a fascinating insight into ancient works to those with a more general curiosity about the past.

The site provides “unprecedented” access to the library’s literary and historical treasures and it is claimed to have tallied over seven million unique visitors since it was launched in 2014.

The British Library has already published collections relating to Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th century literature and drama. The aim is to continue until the British Library has, as it says, covered “the whole rich and diverse backbone of English literature, from The Canterbury Tales to The Buddha of Suburbia”.

“The British Library’s medieval collections are world-renowned and it’s very exciting to be opening up the library’s collections of early literary history to young learners through Discovering Literature,” said Dr Claire Breay, head of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts.

“Each item featured on the website has a rich history and it’s fantastic to see the unique manuscripts of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survived a major fire in the 18th century, showcased on this digital platform for future generations to explore.”




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