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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

25 September 2017

Drop dead gorgeous

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At the beginning of the Office for the Dead in a 15th-century Book of Hours at the British Library, an initial was decorated with an image of a richly-attired skeleton admiring herself in a mirror.  This image may already be familiar to readers of this blog. What we haven't previously mentioned, however, is this manuscript's connection to a powerful duchess, the Renaissance artist Titian and a real skeleton. 

Yates Thompson 7   f. 174
Detail of an initial in the Office for the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Central Italy, c. 1480–1520, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r 

The stylish skeleton appears in a Book of Hours owned by Eleanora (also called Dionora) Gonzaga della Rovere, duchess of Urbino. She was an important patron of the arts and a political figure. We know that this book was owned by Eleanora because it is inscribed with her name and because her family's arms and her husband's arms appear throughout the decoration. The scribe, who signed his work, was Matteo Contugi de Volterra, who worked around the year 1480. The illumination, completed later, may be the work of one of the most notable illuminators from Renaissance Italy, Matteo da Milano. 

Yates Thompson 7   f. 14
Detail of a border with the inscription 'Diva Dio(nora) Duci(ssa) Ur(bini)' and with the arms of Della Rova impaling Gonzaga, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 14r

Eleanora was a great patron of other artists, too. She supported writers such as Baldassare Castiglioni and the poet, Torquato Tasso. Today, she is particularly associated with Titian, who painted her portrait and that of her husband. Some people have even argued that Titian used Eleanora's face as a model for other paintings, namely La Bella, Girl in a Fur Cloak and the Venus of Urbino, although this is now disputed. That is probably just as well: the Venus of Urbino was bought by Eleanora's son Guidobaldo, possibly as a gift for his wife, so it might have been a bit odd if Titian had used the eventual recipient's mother-in-law as one of the models!

Yates Thompson 7   f. 174    Eleanora gonzaga titian

Tiziano-venere-urbino

Spot the difference! Yates Thompson MS 7, Titian's portrait of Eleanora (now in the Uffizi Gallery) and the Venus of Urbino (now also in the Uffizi Gallery)

Eleanora Gonzaga della Rovere died in 1570 and she was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Urbino. All that now remains of Eleanora , former owner of the British Library's Book of Hours, is a skeleton. Indeed, the skeleton believed to be hers was exhumed and analysed in 2005, with the study using craniofacial superimposition to compare its skull with Titian's portrait of Eleonora. The analysis concluded that 'the face of Eleonora [in the painting] matches the skull fairly closely except for the length of the nose'. Titian may have portrayed her with a smaller nose to exaggerate her beauty. If that was the case, it is an interesting coda to the story of the duchess who owned this Book of Hours, with its famous image of a skeleton warning against vanity!

Yates Thompson 7   f. 42v
Detail of a border and an initial 'D' inscribed with the words 'Dionara Gonzaga Duc(issa) Urbini et cet[era]' , Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 42v

 

Alison Hudson

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22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

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The House of Tudor reigned over England for almost a century and a quarter, and is renowned for its displays of indulgence. King Henry VIII (1509–1547) is especially associated with having led a luxurious and decadent lifestyle: he is thought to have squandered a large part of the treasure amassed by his father, King Henry VII (1485–1509), on banquets and festivities. Even so, their account books show that the Tudor kings, including Henry VIII, were very much interested in book-keeping, and did not simply throw money around at will. Such behaviour was thought to have a corrupting effect — it was portrayed as a shower of coins in a near-contemporary prayer-book commissioned by William of Hastings (d. 1483), Master of the Royal Mint.

Image 1 - Tudor Court

A shower of coins in the borders of a prayer to the Three Kings, in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 43r

The British Library has recently digitised four account books of Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. These two kings clearly kept track of their income and expenses by inspecting their account books. This is indicated by the fact that three of the account books, (partially) written by John Heron (1470–1522), Treasurer of the Chamber, include the kings’ signatures at the end of several of their entries.

Image 2 - Tudor Court

The signature of King Henry VII, 1499–1505: Add MS 21480, f. 10v

Image 3 - Tudor Court

The signature of King Henry VIII, 1509–1518: Add MS 21481, f. 4v

The household books give us an insight into the life and activities at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. They contain records with payments for many types of labourer and artisan: gardeners, such as the ‘moletaker’; cooks, such as the ‘Frenche coke’ employed by Henry VIII; tailors, such as the ‘yeman of the robes’ and the ‘fethermaker’; falconers; trumpeters; crossbow makers and maintainers, known as the ‘grome of the crosbows’; clockmakers, such as Nicholas Kratzer, a German astronomer who was commissioned by Henry VIII to design an astronomical clock for Hampton Court; engravers, referred to as  the ‘graver of precious stones’; courtiers; soldiers; secretaries; ambassadors and other officials. They also document material goods, such as horses and greyhounds, as well as spiritual goods, such as alms and prayers.

One account book (Add MS 21481) contains a letter dated 23 January 1512 (ff. 347r–348v), in which Henry VIII orders John Heron to make payments to Gilbert Talbot (1452–1517), Lord Deputy of Calais, and Edward Poynings (1459–1521), military commander and diplomat, for ‘certain men of arms and houses in Flanders for our war’s purpose’ [‘certain men of armes and hooysse in fflaunders for oure werres use’] in preparation for a campaign against France. But the books also give insight into the kings' personal lives. For example, we can see that Henry VIII, several years after the annulment of his marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was still making payments directly to her and her treasurer Wymond Carewe, for ‘her officers and certain gentlewomen an gentlemen’ [‘her Officers and certeyn gentilwomen and gentilwomen’]. 

Image 4 - Tudor Court

An entry for a payment to Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 70v

Image 5 - Tudor Court

An entry for a payment to Wymond Carewe for the household of Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 63r

You can explore the world of the Tudor court for yourself by viewing the following household books online:

King Henry VII’s household book for the years 1499-1505

King Henry VII's household book for the years 1502-1505

King Henry VIII’s household book for the years 1509-1518

King Henry VIII's household book for the years 1543-1544

 

Clarck Drieshen

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20 September 2017

Where's Walter?

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There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.

Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f049r

Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r

Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f233v
A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v

The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f080r

Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r

For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r

In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’

Hello, Walter.

 

Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.

 

Amy Jeffs

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