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Write till your ink be dry

Gregory Cartulary



About the Item

This is the oldest book in this exhibition. It is called a cartulary, which means a collection of documents (also known as charters, or cartae in Latin, hence the name cartulary). 

Cartularies were usually bound together into a book. It was a way to keep important information together, in order, and secure. Cartularies contained very important documents for wealthy families. The documents usually proved their rights to titles and land, which passed through the generations. 

This cartulary was put together over 400 years. The earliest document dates from the early 13th century (1200s CE) and the latest from the late 16th century (1500s CE), when William Shakespeare was at the height of his success in the London theatre scene. Cartularies sometimes included other special documents, often a calendar. The calendars looked very different to calendars that we use today, but they were also used to plan the year. They set out religious feasts, farming activities, and the signs of the zodiac. The calendar in this cartulary was probably made in the 14th century (1300s CE). It actually doesn’t have a date recorded on it but historians and archivists, like detectives, use clues (such as the way something is made) to work out when something was likely to have been created.

Look how colourful this calendar is. Most of the other documents in this book are in black ink. Calendars were usually created in really bright colours. The colours in this one have faded because it is so old, but can you notice the ones that remain bright? The colours (or pigments) used for the illustrations include gold leaf (yes, real gold!). Other pigments were made from animals, plants and minerals. Some ingredients came from very far away. The blue colour (‘ultramarine’) was actually more expensive than the gold leaf. It was made by grinding up a precious stone called Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli is found in Afghanistan so it would have travelled a long way before being turned into pigment in England. Which colour do you think might have been created by crushing up and boiling cochineal insects? 

Creating an ornate document like this was highly skilled, laborious and expensive. This document was given special treatment as it was used for working out the dates for religious festivals. However, it would also have been used for practical activities, like setting rent collection dates.  

Cartularies like this pre-date the modern printed book form but also influenced it. What similarities and differences are there between this book and a modern book? Think about how they were created and what they are made from (you can watch the video to find out more about this).

Watch this!

Watch this video in which the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Collections Manager, Amy Hurst, tells us more about this beautiful illuminated manuscript.

 Learn more

Click on the red tab that says 'See full record details'. If you click on the image icon you can see another 55 images, many showing the illustrations on the calendar. Do you have a favourite picture? Can you spot the peacock with a man’s head in the page border? What do you think this is trying to tell the reader? Perhaps a joke about ‘peacocking’ vanity? It is amazing when an object from the past gives you information about the way that people used to live or do things. Each section of the calendar is illustrated with a sign of the zodiac and a seasonal activity. November, for example, features a drawing of the archer of Sagittarius and a person gathering acorns for pigs. What else can you spot?


CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust