Detail from a French romance of the second half of the 13th century acquired by the university. Courtesy University of Nottingham
A unique medieval manuscript detailing the life of the patron saint of housewives, maids and waiters is to be preserved and shared with the British public.
The single remaining fragment from a Life of Saint Zita dates from around 1450 and is the only surviving evidence of an English translation of her life, providing important evidence about the cult of this Italian saint.
It was bought along with nine other medieval manuscripts and 42 printed books by the University of Nottingham using a £577,000 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, who plan to open the works up to a wider audience through web images and a variety of interpretive tools.
“The story of Zita is just one of many surprising lives tucked away in this collection of medieval documents,” said HLF Regional Manager Emma Sale.
“Stories about women’s positions in society cross paths with knights, priests and even pirates and prostitutes. With tales of romance, fashion and sin, the manuscripts will, once preserved and interpreted, really set the public’s imagination on fire.”
Detail from John Gower's Confession of a Lover, showing a decorative detail covering imperfection in the parchment. Courtesy University of Nottingham
Zita was born in Monte Sagrati in Italy in 1218 and became a servant for a merchant family at the age of 12. She was initially disliked by her peers for her hard work, piety and charity although eventually became accepted by them and credited with a variety of miracles and was canonised in 1696.
As well as the Saint Zita text one of the central parts of the new collection is John Gower’s poem the Confessio Amantis (Confession of a Lover), one of the most important pieces of 14th century literature.
It contains a passage praising Gower’s contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, and includes a series of often sensational stories, delving into subjects like infanticide, incest and patricide as well as loyalty, love and honour.
The project aims to show the common links and the differences between medieval behaviour, morals and ways of life and those of the modern day.
Dorothy Johnston, Keeper of Manuscripts and Special Collections at Nottingham University said: “The literature of the middle ages seems very foreign to most people today, even those texts which were written in English. This project gives us a wonderful opportunity to dismantle some of the barriers to understanding.”
Page from Gower's Confession of a Lover. Courtesy University of Nottingham
“The web resource we plan to create will focus initially on the theme of women in the middle ages, as revealed in those manuscripts. We’re particularly pleased that we shall be able through this award to work with young people, who we feel will respond to the strong themes and tales from the middle ages.”
Other works to be preserved include William Waddington’s Manual of Sins from 1250 and a French manuscript from the second half of the 13th century showing the close links between France and England at the time.
It contains a group of fables and romances illustrated with knights and other characters from the tales. One of the stories tells of a woman called Silence, who was brought up as a man because her sex barred her from her inheritance.
As the manuscripts are fragile and written in a variety of languages and dialects like Middle English, Old French, Latin and Anglo-Norman, the University plans to make them accessible by digitising them for the web and using a variety of e-learning tools and events to interpret them.
An exhibition is planned at the University’s Lakeside Arts Weston Gallery in 2010.