THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from August 2016

31 August 2016

The Wisdom of the Greeks

Tickets are selling fast for a special lecture at the British Library on 19 September. Michael Wood, television presenter, writer and Professor of Public History, will be speaking on The Wisdom of the Greeks in an evening event held at our conference centre. He promises to examine how the legacy of Greece and Byzantium in science, religion and literature was transmitted to the Latin West, and to tell fascinating stories about texts and ideas, scribes and scholars. There may even be references to Anglo-Saxon kings, Crusader knights and Renaissance humanists!

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Michael's talk will be the conclusion of our Greek Manuscripts in the British Library conference, to be held that same day. This event marks the completion of the third phase of our Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the launch of the Greek Manuscripts Online web resource. The day itself starts with an academic conference, including invited experts, to discuss a variety of topics related to the British Library’s digitised Greek collections, such as Greek-Syriac palimpsests, Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, Greek written culture and the digital humanities and the cultural interactions between Greece and Britain. The conference runs from 10.00 to 1700, and attendees can purchase a ticket to the evening talk at a reduced rate.

The Wisdom of the Greeks by Michael Wood is on 19 September 2016 (18.30–20.00), and tickets are £10 (£7 for under 18s, with other concessions available).

29 August 2016

Monster Monday

You may have noticed the recent trend for naming days on Twitter. We've had #WorldElephantDay, #InternationalDogDay and even #nationalburgerday (seriously, who makes this stuff up?!). So, without more ado, we've decided to make a stand and to reclaim Mondays as our very own #MonsterMonday. (You know it makes sense.)

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A man without a head, with eyes and a mouth in his chest (a blemmye): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v

For the inaugural #MonsterMonday (the trademark application is in the post), we thought we'd kick off with the Marvels of the East, from the copy that forms part of the famous Beowulf manuscript. A quick advert for our Digitised Manuscripts site here: you should know that you can view digitised images of Beowulf and hundreds of the British Library's other medieval manuscripts, for free and online, from the comfort of your own office/living room/bathroom, 24/7. The manuscript of the Marvels of the East featured here was made sometime around the year AD 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) or his successor, King Cnut (1016–35). Sadly, it was damaged during the Cotton Library fire of 1731, but the pages containing the images of fantastic beasts are mostly intact, even when the parchment has warped under the intense heat of the flames.

Which monsters do you recognise here? We'd love you to tweet us your favourites, to @BLMedieval, and to join in our little game of Monday mayhem, using the hashtag #MonsterMonday. Otherwise, someone else will come up with an equally daft idea, like #GlobalTurnipWeek, and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?

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A serpent and a two-horned beast: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99r

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A cynocephalus (a man with a dog's head): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

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A man 15 feet high with white bodies and two faces: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

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A beast-headed man, holding a human leg and foot, alongside a person with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v

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A man with ears like winnowing fans: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

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A woman with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 105v

 

Julian Harrison

@BLMedieval/@julianpharrison

26 August 2016

Improving Access to Our Digitised Manuscripts

If you check the British Library’s online catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts today, you may notice an exciting change. Catalogue entries of many digitised manuscripts now feature a button linking directly to the digitised version of the manuscript.  

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Detail of a marginal painting of a friar with a musical instrument and a woman with upraised arms, from the Maastricht Hours, Low Countries (Liège), c. 1300–1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r 

You can find the link either by scrolling down the ‘Details’ tab or by looking in the tab labelled ‘I want this’, where a button linking to the digital version should appear first in the list of options. Click on the blue hyperlink or the red ‘Go’ button, and a new tab will open in your browser containing the Digitised Manuscripts page for the relevant manuscript. We will soon have added hyperlinks to catalogue entries for all 1460+ of our digitised manuscripts.

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Catalogue entries for the Psalter of Henry VIII, Royal MS 2 A XVI, with links to the digital version highlighted in red

Therefore, if you are planning a trip to the British Library or just looking up the details of a manuscript, you will be able to see immediately what is fully available 24/7 on Digitised Manuscripts. There’s no need to wait for our quarterly masterlist of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks (although we will continue to release those) or to check the Digitised Manuscripts website separately.

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Opening page of one of the most recent additions to Digitised Manuscripts, La
Vie de saint Denys et ses compaignons, with inhabited border and historiated initial, France (Paris or Rouen?), c. 1420, Harley MS 4409, f. 3r

We hope you will find this new tool useful. With almost 1500 manuscripts digitised, there is a lot to discover. Happy reading!

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time without my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

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Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

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Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r

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Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!

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Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

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Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.

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Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

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Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.

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Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.

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Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton

@BLMedieval/@bbeckyL

23 August 2016

Which Star Sign Are You?

Are you one of those people who reads their star charts religiously? Does it matter whether you were born a Taurus or under the sign of Aries? Do Leos rub you up the wrong way or Capricorns get your goat?

If you've answered yes to any of these questions, it might warm your heart to realise that astrology was taken very seriously in the Middle Ages. Take, for example, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (Add MS 21114), which contains this cycle of calendar pages, each adorned with its own zodiac sign. For January we have an image of a hooded man drinking from a bowl, below which is the sign of Aquarius; February is represented by a man lopping branches from a tree, with the sign of Pisces; while December depicts a man about to slaughter a bull, supported by the sign of Capricorn. Lambert (died around 1177) had founded the Béguine monastery of St Christophe in Liège, and his portrait is found on f. 7v of this Psalter, made sometime between 1255 and 1265.

Whoever illustrated this calendar clearly wished to supply the star signs for their readers, supplemented by drawings of typical activities for each month of the year, from hawking (May) to harvesting (August) and making wine (October). The vaguely optimistic bull on the calendar page for December is contrasted with the indignant boar for November and the proud hawk for May. Meanwhile, the star signs all resemble their modern forms, with that for Sagittarius firing its arrow into the distance off the right-hand edge of the page. So, which star sign are you?

Jan

January (Aquarius): Add MS 21114, f. 1r

 

Feb

February (Pisces): Add MS 21114, f. 1v

 

Mar

March (Aries): Add MS 21114, f. 2r

 

Apr

April (Taurus): Add MS 21114, f. 2v

 

May

May (Gemini): Add MS 21114, f. 3r

 

June

June (Cancer): Add MS 21114, f. 3v

 

July

July (Leo): Add MS 21114, f. 4r

 

Aug

August (Virgo): Add MS 21114, f. 4v

 

Sept

September (Libra): Add MS 21114, f. 5r

 

Oct

October (Scorpio): Add MS 21114, f. 5v

 

Nov

November (Sagittarius): Add MS 21114, f. 6r

 

Dec

December (Capricorn): Add MS 21114, f. 6v

You can find our more about calendar pages in our monthly post taken this year from the magnificent Bedford Hours.

@BLMedieval

20 August 2016

The Grandisson Psalter

When John Grandisson (1292–1369) became bishop of Exeter in 1327, he was not taking up an easy job. His predecessor, Walter Stapeldon, had been murdered in London the previous year. The cathedral was half-finished. By 1348, the city was struck by the Black Death, bringing poverty everywhere.

John struck back at the confusion with beauty, ensuring that building works could continue, amassing a library, and making space to write. Perhaps the most stunning book he owned was his Psalter, held at the British Library, Add MS 21926, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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An angel with John Grandisson’s arms: Add MS 21926, f. 2r

Although the ‘Grandisson Psalter’ was made long before he was born, around 1270–80, we know that it was owned by John because he conveniently had his coat of arms added to the opening page. His will also survives, in which he bequeathed the book to princess Isabella (1332–79), the eldest daughter of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He called it ‘my rather beautiful Psalter’, with good reason.

The manuscript opens with a delightful calendar – like almost every liturgical book, as regular readers will know – showing the labours of the months and signs of the zodiac. Following this is a marvellous series of miniatures, first showing various saints. Opening the line-up are a cheerful St Christopher, carrying Christ, and St Margaret, triumphantly slaying a dragon with an extended cross/spear.

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St Christopher (‘Cristoforus’) and St Margaret (‘Margareta’): Add MS 21926, f. 9v

Following the saints are scenes from the life of Christ. Among these are an incredibly creepy Judas. He often comes across in medieval art as a merely pathetic figure, but here he looks to be aiming to replace Moriarty in the next series of Sherlock.

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Judas eating at the Last Supper and kissing Christ: Add MS 21926, f. 18v

Another scene shows an appropriately sceptical Thomas touching the side and hand of Christ. In the panel below is another scene of physical contact, showing Christ having dinner, presumably with Martha and Lazarus: he looks mildly embarrassed to have Mary Magdalene washing his feet.

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A doubting Thomas touching Christ and determined Mary Magdalene washing his feet: Add MS 21926, f. 23r

Following the miniatures, the psalms are beautifully written, with large decorated initials and intricate patterns filling in the white space at the end of the lines to create a unified block of text. Like several other illuminated Psalters from the period, some figures are included that act out the literal meaning of the text in a mildly humorous manner, probably meant as a memory aid. One page shows a man on a journey grabbing his tongue to illustrate the phrase, ‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue. I placed a guard on my mouth’ (Psalm 39:1/Vulgate 38:2, ‘Dixi custodiam uias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam’).

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‘I said, I will take heed to my ways that I offend not in my tongue’: Add MS 21926, f. 66v

John Grandisson’s use of the book also comes through beyond his coat of arms. At the beginning of most psalms, music has been added in the lower margin giving the text and music of the antiphon, a sentence sung before and after the psalm. Since the music used for the antiphon is also used for the entire psalm, these small additions would have allowed him to sing the entire book.

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A motley crew of engaged and not-so-engaged clerics singing from a book on a lectern, with the chant for ‘Cantate domino canticum nouum’ (Psalm 97/98) later added: Add MS 21926, f. 132v

The continuing active use of the book is confirmed by the last section, which includes the text of the Office for the Dead. A later reader, probably John, used a slightly different variant on the rite than that recorded in the book. A scribe has carefully erased and modified sections of the text, also making changes to the punctuation of the text to fit local usage. These pages must have become particularly poignant for John in the context of the pestilence he faced.

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The beginning of the Office for the Dead, with the initial showing a body under a shroud being sprinkled with water: Add MS 21926, f. 208v

John Grandisson’s Psalter is a brilliant witness to the skill of artists and scribes in the late 13th century. We hope you love it as much as its original owners and creators.

Andrew Dunning

@BLMedieval/@anjdunning

18 August 2016

Explore our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

When we started this blog, back in the distant past (2010 to be precise, though sometimes it seems longer), we never anticipated how many people would take an interest in the beautiful world of medieval manuscripts. Who ever knew that unicorn cookbooks, knights fighting snails, magical swords and cats in submarines would inspire so many people worldwide. (And no, we never expected to discover we have readers in Antarctica and Greenland either!)

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A cat, a rat and a mouse, from a 13th-century miscellany (Harley MS 3244)

Some of our readers, of course, study manuscripts and ancient documents for their profession, being art historians, palaeographers and papyrologists, to name but a few. But we do appreciate that others may have less technical expertise; and for that reason we wanted to remind everyone of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. This is a free online resource, supplying selected images of some of our greatest treasures alongside other useful information for the specialist and non-specialist alike.

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The Nativity, from our introduction to Bible manuscripts 

Here are some of the key features of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

a search function by keyword, with the ability to select a specific date range

a search function by manuscript number

an advanced search function, with fields including scribe, artist, language, illumination and script

a number of virtual exhibitions, including An introduction to liturgical manuscripts, Arthurian manuscripts and the medieval bestiary

illustrated glossaries of terms, including Hebrew terms

guidance notes on access and re-use

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A zoo-anthropomorphic initial, from our online glossary

We hope that as many of you as possible find our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as useful as possible. Go on, give it a try. You might find out the difference between channeling (ooh, painful) and rinceaux (bless you). And you might just discover the manuscript that will change your life ...

@BLMedieval

 

 

 

16 August 2016

Research Curator, Renaissance Literature

We have a job opportunity here at the British Library, to work on our Discovering Literature online resource, in the field of Renaissance Literature. This is a full time, fixed term contract, for a period of 7 months. Further details can be found here on the Library's recruitment pages.

Discovering Literature was launched in 2014, and showcases the British Library’s literary classics through an exploration of the historical, social and political contexts in which they were written and received. We are seeking highly organised candidates with excellent research skills and experience of working in the cultural sector. The successful applicant will be expected to identify collection material, ensure its safe and timely digitisation, research and author content, and support the creation of article or film content.

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Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, 16th century (British Library Egerton MS 2711, f. 67r)

Candidates must have the right to work in the United Kingdom, and the following minimum requirements:

  • Specialist knowledge and research experience using manuscripts and early printed books relevant to the collections at the British Library, evidenced through a post-graduate qualification or equivalent.
  • Strong palaeographical skills.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills, in particular editorial and web-authoring skills, and evidence of writing and publishing to deadline.
  • Familiarity with British Library catalogues and catalogues of other major research libraries.
  • The ability to work both independently and in a team.
  • High level of time-management skills.

To apply for this post, please visit our recruitment pages.

Closing Date: 28 August 2016 

Interview Date: 6 September 2016