THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

08 August 2017

Illuminated manuscripts for polyglots

Here at the British Library we have just completed our latest digitisation project, with over 100 manuscripts added to our website between January 2016 and July this year. The project, funded by a private donor, has focused on collection items in French and other European vernacular languages that are notable either for their illuminations or for texts of particular interest. A list of the manuscripts digitised in this project is available at online: Download French and Vernacular Illuminated project digitisation list. Here are examples of some of the most remarkable items from our collections newly available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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God with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by angels and cherubim, a winged woman with a crown addressing a council of the Church, the four Evangelists and scenes from the Old and New Testament in roundels, from the Bible Historiale, France, Central (Paris), c.1420, Add MS 18856, f. 3r

Manuscripts in French

Among the numerous French manuscripts digitised are the Library’s remaining copies of the Roman de la Rose, a popular French allegorical poem beginning with a dream-vision of love, and developed by a second author into a discussion of the philosophical and scientific knowledge of the day. There are now 14 copies of this very popular text on Digitised Manuscripts. For details of the Rose manuscripts in our collections, see our blogpost, ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’.

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The Lover’s dream, from Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?), c. 1380, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Some of the most beautifully-illuminated manuscripts in French tell familiar stories from the Bible and the classical past, allowing for imaginative depictions of well-known episodes and characters like Alexander the Great. The first image in this post is of a Bible Historiale, an illustrated collection of Bible stories and commentary. The Roman d’Alexandre is another example.

 

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The coronation of Alexander and the wedding banquet of King Philip and Cleopatra, from the Roman d’Alexandre, Low Countries, 1st quarter of the 14th century. Harley MS 4979, f. 17v

Anglo-Norman is the version of French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest, and in the 14th century it was still being used alongside Middle English and Latin. This volume is a compilation in all three languages, believed to have been produced in the Hereford area around 1320–1340, with an assortment of religious, mathematical, legal and astrological texts. This book is copied in an everyday cursive script with only minor decoration, but it is of great importance for the unique texts it contains, including the only known manuscript copy of the Romance of Fulk le Fitz-Warin, recipes in Anglo-Norman French and macaronic verses (with alternating lines in French, Latin and English).

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Macaronic satirical verses from a prose and verse miscellany, England, Central (Hereford), 1st half of the 14th century, Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 7r

Manuscripts in Middle English

Manuscripts containing key Middle English texts have also been included in this project: we have digitised 8 of these, including works by Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower.

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Detail of a miniature of the discovery of Edmund's head with a scroll with gold inscription 'heer heer herr', with a wolf guarding it, and a man blowing a horn, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, between 1461 and c. 1475, England, S. E. (Bury St Edmunds?), Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

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A Carthusian anthology of theological works in English includes works on contemplation by Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, 
'The myrroure of symple saules' a Middle English translation of a French text by Marguerite Porète, from the ‘Amherst Manuscript’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 137r

Among the manuscripts digitised is a copy of the Canterbury Tales, with the spurious ‘Tale of Gamelyn’, not written by Chaucer, but of particular interest for the themes it shares with the contemporary Ballad of Robin Hood.

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Prologue and opening lines of the Squire’s Tale from the Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, England; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1758, f. 68r

 

Manuscripts in other European vernacular languages featuring in the project include:

Middle Dutch

This version of the Medea legend in Middle Dutch has some extremely graphic images of Medea’s horrific actions and is followed by a work on the game of chess.

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Jason, Creusa and her father, the King of Corinth are seated at the wedding table; Medea enters with four dragons and tears her son to pieces in front of them, from Medea and Dat Scaecspel (Chess Book) in Dutch, Add MS 10290, f. 138r 

Jacob van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch work, Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) is a natural encyclopaedia and bestiary in verse, written around 1270 at the request of the nobleman Nicolaas van Cats to contain all available knowledge about the natural world. Almost every page is illustrated, with some creatures more easily identifiable than others. This manuscript seems to have been a lending copy, and it is also notable for its book curse.

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A page from Der Naturen Bloeme  featuring a steer, a mole and other creatures, c 1300–c 1325, Netherlands, Add MS 11390, f. 25v

 

Occitan (Langue d’Oc) and Catalan

The Breviari d’Amor, composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292 in Occitan (or Langue d’Oc, the dialect of Southern France), is a poem containing a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, and seen as a manifestation of God’s love. Ermengaud describes himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love.

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The Tree of Love or 'Arbre d'Amor', with the figure of 'Amors Generals' at the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor in Occitan, early 14th century, France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

The work was adapted into Catalan prose. This magnificent copy comes from the collection of illuminated manuscripts formerly belonging to Henry Yates Thompson.  

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The Offices of the Angels from the Breviari d’Amor in Catalan prose, Spain, E. (Catalonia, Gerona?); last quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 39v

Two other Yates Thompson manuscripts, MS 47 (see above) and MS 21, a copy of the Roman de la Rose have also now been digitised. For information on this collection, see the virtual exhibition in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   

Mantuan dialect of Italian

The extremely influential scientific work, De proprietatibus rerum, was compiled in the 1240s by a Franciscan, Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman), for the instruction of his fellow Franciscans. This copy was translated from Latin into Mantuan for Guido dei Bonacolsi (d. 1309).

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Map of the world, supported by Christ, with the Continents depicted as different buildings, from De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Manua), c 1300–1309, Add MS 8785, f. 315r

A home-grown alphabetical encyclopaedia in Latin

Encyclopaedias have been a theme running through this project: to the De nature and the Breviari above, we can add the Omne Bonum, a huge alphabetical reference work compiled in the 14th century by the Englishman James le Palmer, who was clerk of the Exchequer under Edward III. Most of the entries are illustrated.

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‘Ebrietas’ (Drunkenness), from the Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London), c. 1360–c. 1375,  Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

For further details, see our recent blogpost that accompanied the digitisation of these manuscripts. 

lluminated Apocalypse Manuscripts

And last but not least, the Apocalypse (the biblical book of Revelation with a commentary) was among the most popular works of the medieval period, and numerous illustrated copies were produced in England. 11 manuscripts in Latin, French or Middle English, and some in dual-language versions, have been digitised in this project, so that all 20 illuminated copies of the Apocalypse in our collections are now online. See our recent blogpost ‘The End of the World as we know it’ for the complete list.

This copy is in three languages, with the main text in Latin, a verse translation and prose commentary in Anglo-Norman French and an added paraphrase in Middle English prose.

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The dragon attacks the mother and child, from the Apocalypse in three languages, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 22v

Chantry Westwell

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