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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

19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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17 April 2018

Naming a royal baby

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With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting their third child any day now, the question on many people's lips is: what will the baby's name be? In the light of our upcoming exhibition on Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, we have a few medieval suggestions for naming the royal baby.

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The naming of John the Baptist depicted in the Cotton Troper: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

In the case of the present-day British royal family, most of their names are derived ultimately from Biblical sources (Elizabeth), classical sources (George, Philip) or Continental medieval sources (William, Charles). Prince Edward's name, popular throughout English and British royal history, is instead of Anglo-Saxon origin and was then spelled Eadweard, meaning 'blessed guardian'. Rather appropriately, the modern Edward was made Earl of Wessex on his marriage.

The nobility of the kingdom of Wessex, which later became the nobility of all England, favoured names beginning with E(a)d- and Alf- and Æthel- sounds. Many personal names at that time were made up of two parts. Typically, the first would be something like Ead- (blessed), Wulf- (wolf), Ælf- (elf), Æthel- (noble) or Byrht-(bright), all of which could be used for both male and female names. The second part was gendered: -flæd (dwelling), -thryth (strength), -gi(e)fu (gift), -wynn (joy) and -burh (castle, town) are all female name-endings, whereas male names could end with a word such as -stan (stone), -ric (power), -weard (guardian), -wine (friend) or -ræd (advice). It is not known how much thought the Anglo-Saxons gave to the derivations of their names, but we do know that some of them enjoyed a good pun on their name, including Archbishop Wulfstan ‘the Wolf’ of York.

A range of possible medieval names for the new royal baby can be found in the will of a wealthy woman called Wynflæd, who owned lands and slaves mostly in the south-west of England in the 10th or 11th century. Many of her beneficiaries had one of these two-part names, such as Eadwold, Cynelufu and Æthelflæd (her own daughter), although others had one-part names, such as Else.

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Wynflæd's will: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Anglo-Saxon nobles may have preferred ‘Eds’ and ‘Alfs’ and compound names, but that doesn’t mean that those are the only early medieval precedents for royal names. If new parents are feeling daring, they might be inspired by this early 9th-century lists of kings, including names such as Woden, Ocga, Wihtgils, Saebald and Ida.

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List of Northumbrian kings: Cotton MS Vespasian B VI/1, f. 109r.

Likewise, the Durham Liber Vitae, complied from the 9th to the 12th century, records the names of many kings and nobles. These include not just Anglo-Saxon names, such as Aðelstan (Æthelstan) and Adgar (Edgar), but also those of the Norse kings of England such as Cnut (Canute) and Suain (Sweyn). If William and Kate prefer to take their inspiration from the Scottish side of the family, the Liber Vitae also records the names of kings of Scotland, such as Duncan, Alexander and Malcolm. Malcolm III's queen, Margaret, is named below their daughter Matilda, who was the consort of King Henry I of England and was originally baptised as Edith.

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List of kings and nobles in the Durham Liber Vitae: Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

Having more than one name was certainly not unique among royalty at this time. For instance, the second consort of King Æthelred II was Emma of Normandy, who adopted the name Ælfgifu after coming to England. Confusingly, Ælfgifu was also the name of Æthelred's first wife. After his death, Emma was married to King Cnut: the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in praise of the queen, depicts her receiving the book from its author, in the presence of her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut, whose names are equally significant as well. Edward the Confessor was her son with Æthelred, and his name follows West Saxon royal naming conventions. By contrast, Emma's son with Cnut was given the overtly Scandinavian name Harthacnut. The manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae Add MS 33241, has been digitised as part of the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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Encomium Emmae Reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

With all these manuscripts to hand, we can offer plenty of early medieval ideas for naming the new royal baby. Will it be called Æthelflæd or Aðelstan? We can't wait to find out.

 

Kate Thomas and Alison Hudson

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14 April 2018

Italian splendour now on display in Treasures

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During the second half of the 13th century the northern Italian city of Bologna became one of the most prolific and influential centres for the production of fine books. Here a succession of illuminators exercised their skills in many hundreds of copies of the Church law, liturgy and the Bible.

Whereas the law books reflected the city’s status as the principal place in Europe to study Church law, the Bibles arose from the presence in the city of one of the largest houses of the Dominican order in Europe. Founded by St Dominic (d. 1221), the Order of Preachers had quickly established a key role within the Church in the promotion of scholarship and countering of heresy. Together with the Franciscans (founded in 1209) they harnessed to these purposes the so-called Paris Bible, a single-volume copy of the Latin Vulgate of relatively small proportions. This Bible included a new sequence of biblical texts and aids to the reader that had emerged from the classrooms and bookshops of Paris in the first quarter of the 13th century. In mendicant hands such pocket Bibles became a potent instrument of the travelling preacher. At Bologna, the final resting place of St Dominic, the dominant influence of his Order led to the production of many more such Bibles than anywhere else in Italy.

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Christ’s genealogy, starting from Jesse, the Annunciation, Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, all at the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew: Additional MS 18720, f. 410r

The Bible now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a closely related manifestation of Bologna’s important role in the production and dissemination of the Latin Bible, although it was produced in a much bigger format. But as in the pocket Bibles, the biblical text of the Old and New Testaments is contained within one volume and follows the same revised sequence, clearly highlighted by running titles in alternating red and blue ink.

Each book of the Bible is preceded by a preface and most notably, divided into the numbered chapters used by modern Bibles. Often ascribed to the commentator Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this reference system is seen in its full maturity in the Bolognese manuscript, with each chapter starting on a new line and preceded on the previous line by the relevant Roman numbers penned in red and blue ink.

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Two Dominicans stands to the left and right of a seated figure reading from a roll, at the opening of St Jerome’s Letter to Paulinus: Additional MS 18720, f. 2r (detail)

Depictions of the friars also pervade the illumination. Two Dominicans in their distinctive white gowns and black hooded cloaks are depicted standing to right and left of Paulinus, bishop of Nola (d. 431), who was the recipient of the letter of St Jerome that recommended committed study of the Bible and came to form an overall preface to the Vulgate. Friars in the brown robes of the Franciscans also appear as the recipients of several of the Pauline and Catholic Epistles.

Yet, in its much larger scale and more lavish illumination, the Bolognese volume clearly differs from the average pocket Bible. As in a few other related Bibles produced in Bologna towards the end of the 13th century, its producers were responding to a different commercial market in which prospective owners were capable of paying for significantly greater investment of labour and talent. Most spectacularly they produced at the beginning of both the Old and New Testaments an opulent page in which the principal initial letter ‘I’ extends the full height of the page and encroaches into the text block to left and right.

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God creates the world; Adam and Eve are drive out of the Garden of Eden; Cain and Abel make their sacrifices to God; and Cain kills Abel, all at the opening of Genesis: Additional MS 18720, f. 5r

Here a richly coloured cascade of figures is offset against a ground of highly polished gold leaf and complemented by historiated and inhabited roundels in the upper and lower margins.

Elsewhere 103 historiated initials of remarkably uniform and high stylistic quality and accompanied by beautifully executed marginal decoration mark the beginning of prefaces and biblical books. The initials of the chronologically arranged historical books of the Old Testament include narrative scenes, those of the Prophets and Gospels are limited to fictive portraits of their authors and those of the Epistles depict both author and recipient.

Within these figurative illuminations the artists adopted an eclectic artistic style fusing Italian elements with those of Byzantine art. The panoply of archangels accompanying the Days of Creation are clad in Byzantine court costume. Crouching men reading from rolls draped over their knees evoke even older traditions. For some of these features the illuminators may have drawn, like other contemporary Bolognese artists, directly on works of art recently created by Byzantine artists.

This manuscript may be viewed in full on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 18720/1 and Add MS 18720/2).

 

Further Reading


Alessandro Conti, La miniatura Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe, 1270–1340 (Bologna, 1981), pp. 45–47.

Larry Ayres, ‘Bibbie italiane e bibbie francesi: il XIII secolo’, in Il Gotico europeo in Italia, ed. by Valentino Pace and Martina Bagnoli (Naples, 1994), pp. 361–74 (pp. 370–71).

Ducento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, ed. by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei (Venice, 2000), no. 114.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here.

 

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