THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from December 2017

30 December 2017

Digging for inscriptions in medieval manuscripts

Inscriptions are one of the key sources for understanding premodern history. Monuments carved in stone could outlast even the most carefully preserved papyri, and there are thousands of people in ancient times that go completely undocumented save for a single inscribed memorial. But monuments were subject to the elements, destroyed, and reused as building materials. We can look for evidence of lost inscriptions in medieval and early modern manuscripts.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add. MS 34758, f. 311r.

Inscriptions copied after the Vitae Patrum: Add MS 34758, f. 311r

Interest in inscriptions never completely died away during the Middle Ages. The Carolingians preserved some of the most important collections of inscriptions, such as that in Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 326(1076). Within the field of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), these are called a ‘sylloge’. Such collections might be found as part of a travelogue, or simply copied as a note with an unrelated text. British Library Harley MS 3685, ff. 3r–5v, includes an important witness of the inscriptions Pope Damasus designed for the new Roman catacombs of the martyrs, now destroyed. Add MS 34758 was made at the monastery of St Andrew in Rome in the late 14th or early 15th century: after a copy of the Lives of the Desert Fathers comes two pages of inscriptions from Rome relating to its emperors (f. 311r–v). This text was copied in the same hand as what precedes it: either it was of interest to the original compiler, or it was copied along with the rest from an earlier manuscript. It shares some features with a well-known sylloge by Niccolò Signorili, suggesting a common source.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r.

A stray inscription: Royal MS 12 B XXII, f. 2r

Other inscriptions end up in manuscripts almost by accident. In Royal MS 12 B XXII, a copy of Calcidius’s Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus, an inscription from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, datable between 10 December 123 and 9 December 124, has been included at f. 2r. It was likely written into the margin of an earlier copy, and was copied along with the rest as if it were a rubric or heading. This inscription was not known from any other sources before a reader noticed it in the 20th century.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v.

An inscription copied from the house of Paulus Coronatus in Rome: Stowe MS 1016, f. 119v

The most visually impressive example of manuscript epigraphy in the British Library is Stowe MS 1016, made by the scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito (1433–1511) some time after 1502. It includes a copy of a sylloge by his friend Fra Giovanni Giocondo, here in its third recension: he continued to revise the text as he saw new inscriptions. The results are stunning, even if some of the coloured monuments speak more of Renaissance than Classical tastes.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r.

An inscription from a house in the Forum Piscarium: Stowe MS 1016, f. 123r

The use of manuscripts for finding evidence about inscriptions is best known for Roman epigraphy, but it continues to be applicable in the modern day. Many inscriptions of Aphrodisias are best preserved in the notebooks made by William Sherard in 1705–16 while he was British consul at Smyrna (Add MSS 10101–2), with fair copies in Harley MS 7509. Ancient monuments continue to be threatened by war, neglect and pollution. Such documents are a poignant reminder of the importance of preserving the past while there is still time.

Andrew Dunning

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29 December 2017

Thomas Becket's martyrdom

29 December is the anniversary of one of the most controversial events in medieval Christendom: the murder at Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket, in 1170. Becket's assassination brought a bloody end to a long-standing political conflict between the archbishop and King Henry II, who was believed to have been implicit in the killing. In the following decades, an international cult grew up around Becket, with far-flung claims of miracle cures and the re-building of the cathedral to house the martyr's tomb.

Two of the earliest illustrations of Becket's murder, both made in the late 12th century, are found in manuscripts held at the British Library. One of these manuscripts, Cotton MS Claudius B II, has recently been digitised in full by The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project; the other, also available online, is found in Harley MS 5102.

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An early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

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A second early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Becket kneels before the altar, and one of the four knights, perhaps William de Tracy, delivers the first blow, which cuts into the arm of Edward Grim, the cross-bearer; Reginald FitzUrse (identified by the muzzled bear on his shield) strikes the top of Becket's head: Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

The first of these manuscripts was made for Cirencester Abbey, and it contains a collection of Thomas Becket’s letters, assembled by Alan of Tewkesbury. It was made in the 1180s, within twenty years of Becket’s death, when his memory was fresh and his fame was expanding quickly. The makers of this book gave it the kind of luxury treatment associated with the holiest texts. An exquisitely decorated initial, shown below, marks the beginning of the preface, John of Salisbury's Life of Becket. John was a close associate of Becket, and the Life was composed within two years of the archbishop's death.

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The opening of John of Salisbury’s Life of Thomas Becket. Click on this link and hover over the image to reveal interactive annotations: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 2r

The initial 'P' is extravagantly decorated with blue, pink and green vine scrolls inhabited by peering quadrupeds (which remind us of Dr Seuss). Two monstrous faces decorate the stem and bow of the initial. The top and bottom of the stem terminate in ribbon interlace. The whole initial, which looks in the flesh like coloured wire laid over liquid gold, is presented on a patterned background of dark pink quatrefoils with a gilded border. When crafted, the gilding would have been applied first and then the gaps meticulously filled with pigment. The de-luxe treatment is reminiscent of the treatment of the Lives of other, more established saints, and could perhaps have been understood as an expression of Becket's bona fide sanctity. You can read more about one of the scribes of this manuscript in our blogpost, Where's Wally?

The second manuscript comprises a series of five full-page miniatures inserted in an early 13th-century Psalter, perhaps made in the East Midlands of England. The burial of a cleric, perhaps Becket himself, forms the subject of one of the other miniatures.

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Miniature of the burial of a cleric, perhaps Thomas Becket. The upper right monk is holding a white object in his hand, perhaps a fragment of the saint's skull, which had been shattered when he was murdered: Harley MS 5102, f. 17r

Here we can see the two images of Becket's martyrdom side-by-side. There are several contemporary and near-contemporary accounts, some of them by eyewitnesses, of the events in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of 29 December 1170. These two manuscripts reinforce certain elements of the story â€” the number of assailants, Becket kneeling before the altar, his companions watching from the wings — and they bring us as close as may ever be possible to visualise Thomas Becket's martyrdom, though medieval eyes.

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Two early witnesses to Becket's martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r and Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

 

Julian Harrison and Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

28 December 2017

A poem for literally all seasons

As followers of the @BLMedieval Twitter account know, some of us are fond of the hashtag #OTD. Short for ‘On this day’, it is used to recall which historical events took place on a given date. It’s a great excuse to highlight items from the British Library’s collections. In a way, it’s also rather medieval. When Benedictine monks assembled for their daily chapter meetings, they would have read an excerpt from a martyrology about which saints were commemorated that day and the next. Some medieval calendars included entries for every single day, and one of those is known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.

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The entries for December, from the oldest copy of the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Winchester?, 1st quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

The metrical calendar of Hampson survives in four manuscripts, all made in England in the 10th or 11th century (and three of which are held at the British Library). It takes its name from R.T. Hampson, its 19th-century editor. The calendar comprises 365 verses, one for each day of the year. To take account of leap years, medieval calendars added a second 24 February, instead of adding an extra day at the end of the month, known as 29 February.

The oldest surviving copy was made in England in the first decades of the 10th century. It was added to a 9th-century Psalter from the region that is now France (Cotton Galba A XVIII). The poem mostly lists saints commemorated on each day, but it also includes information about the movement of the moon and planets and some versions note the deaths of King Alfred and his queen, Ealhswith. The poet(s) sometimes had to stretch to fill some days. For example, the entry for 28 February roughly translates as, ‘This is the last day of February.’ In other instances, however, the poet(s) used vivid, memorable imagery. The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August was described as the day the Virgin Mary ‘crossed over to the stars.’ Meanwhile, 29 August was listed as the day John the Baptist’s ‘neck was truncated with a sharp sword’.

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The entries for September, from a calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7r

There are two more versions from the first half of the 11th century, both associated with Canterbury or another major scriptorium: Cotton MS Julius A VI and Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Cotton MS Julius A VI contains a series of scientific diagrams and tables, now bound with a hymnal made a decade or two later. Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 includes a range of texts on astronomy, geography and chronology, and includes an early world map. The fourth, abbreviated copy of the metrical calendar is found in an early 10th-century Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27).

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The entries for August, including the feasts of the Assumption and the Decollation of John the Baptist, from a calendar, Canterbury?, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The origin of this poem is debated. It includes many Irish and northern French or Flemish saints, leading some to claim that it was composed by an Irish or continental scholar working in England. There were certainly plenty of candidates: the inhabitants of several northern French churches fled to England following viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th century, while many Irish and continental scholars stayed at the West Saxon court. Alternatively, the surviving poem may have been based on calendars composed elsewhere but modified by someone working in England.

The date when the earliest surviving version of the poem was compiled is slightly easier to narrow down. The oldest copy was made after Alfred's wife, Ealhswith, died in 902, since it mentions her death in the verse for 5 December: ‘The fifth [day] has dear Ealhswith, true lady of the English’. 

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Ealhswith’s death mentioned in Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

However, there could have been earlier versions of the poem. The references to Ealhswith and Alfred could have been added later and, indeed, one of the later calendars (Cotton MS Julius A VI) omits them. Instead of Ealhswith, the entry for 5 December in that calendar commemorates ‘dear Candida, true lady of the Franks’.

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Verse about Candida, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The precise origins of the poem remains a mystery. However, the surviving copies show that the calendar continued to be read and copied for well over a century. It’s easy to see the appeal of a calendar with a verse for literally every occasion. Even to this day, we are fascinated by events which happened #OTD. At least we don’t have to write our tweets in verse!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

26 December 2017

You cannot be Sirius

Fans of a certain boy wizard will be familiar with Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s beloved godfather. In the Harry Potter books, Sirius Black was an Animagus, with the ability to turn into a shaggy-haired black dog. This is no coincidence, as his name was inspired by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which lies in the constellation known as Canis major (The Greater Dog). The British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories, and we are delighted that it features a wonderful 12th-century astronomical treatise (Cotton MS Tiberius C I), containing an elaborate illustration and description of the constellation Sirius.

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The constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

This manuscript was produced at the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew in Peterborough, sometime in the early decades of the 12th century. The astronomical treatise it contains is known as the Aratea, being a Latin translation (by Marcus Tullius Cicero) of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli. The description of each constellation is accompanied by a pen-drawing of either human or animal figures, with red dots representing the stars. In this instance, the constellation Sirius takes the shape of a dog, with the words written in black ink.

The body of Sirius (and the other figures in this manuscript) is infilled with an account of the origins and history of each constellation. They comprise quotations from the Astronomica written by Hyginus, an astronomical source-book. Sirius, from the Greek seirios aster, meaning ‘scorching star’, was thought to have been named by the Egyptian goddess Isis, because the star shone more brightly than any other. The dog days of summer were so-called because the hottest days of the year traditionally coincided when the Dog Star ascended to rise before the Sun, from late July until August.

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The constellation of Orion, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 27v

Sirius was also said to be the hunting dog of Orion. The constellation Orion is portrayed in the same manuscript as a man inside a house. According to the Astronomica of Hyginus, Orion was accidentally slain by the goddess Diana, as the result of a challenge that she could not hit him with one of her hunting arrows. To mourn his death, she placed him among the constellations. Bellatrix, meaning ‘female warrior’, is the third brightest star in the Orion constellation. Other figures in the night sky include the Hare, the Eagle, the Swan and the Centaur. The last-named was believed to be highly skilled in augury, that is, the interpretation of omens.

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The centaur was highly skilled in the interpretation of omens: the Centaur constellation, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 31v

Would you like to stargaze more? This illustrated Aratea has been digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project. It is now available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Two other copies of the Aratea can also be seen in full there, one made in 9th-century France and later taken to Canterbury (Harley MS 647) and the other made at Fleury around the year 1000 (Harley MS 2506).

Meanwhile, the wonderful manuscript illustrated above is currently on display in the Astronomy section of the British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Tickets can be purchased online, but they are selling extremely fast. The show has to end on 28 February, so catch it while you can.

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

 

 

24 December 2017

Illuminating the medieval Nativity

One of the British Library's newly digitised manuscripts is well worth a look this Christmas-time (Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1). It was made somewhere in North-East France or Flanders in the 12th century, and it contains eight sumptuous scenes from the early life of Christ. This cycle of images presumably once served as the preface for either a Psalter or a gospel-book.

Here we take a closer look at three key scenes in this manuscript: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi. Each illuminated page has a luxurious golden background and the artist has used a gorgeously vibrant palette. The miniature of the Nativity has three distinct parts. In the main compartment, Mary is shown resting with the swaddled infant. Below, the midwives bathe the new-born, and beside them Christ is shown in the manger, overseen by an ox and an ass.

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The Nativity: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 5r

In the following image, the angels’ appearance to the astonished shepherds offers a visual feast. Note the rich, varied tones used for their wings and robes. One angel relates the good news of the child in the manger. Above, in the celestial realm, the words of a modern Christmas Carol spring to mind, ‘Ding-dong merrily the sky, is riven with angels singing: ‘Gloo-o-o-ria! In Excelsis Deo!’

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The Annunciation to the Shepherds: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

In keeping with wider artistic traditions, the three magi, crowned as kings, are portrayed as the three ages of man.

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The Adoration of the Magi: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 9r

The eldest wise man, usually Caspar, is shown offering his gift of gold. Look how carefully the artist has rendered his white locks of hair, his lined face and his full beard.

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The aged Caspar: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 9r

The full cycle of eight images comprises: the Annunciation (f. 3r); the Visitation (f. 4v); the Nativity (f. 5r); the Annunciation to the Shepherds (f. 6v); the Massacre of the Innocents (f. 7r); the Presentation in the Temple (f. 8v), the Adoration of the Magi (f. 9r); and the Baptism of Christ (f. 10v). We invite you to explore the full sequence on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

20 December 2017

It must be witchcraft

The blockbuster exhibition at the British Library this winter is magical in more ways than one. Harry Potter: A History of Magic features not only original items from J.K. Rowling's own archive and some of the Library's precious manuscripts, but also a number of items borrowed from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Boscastle. We are indebted to the Museum of Witchcraft for their generosity in lending us real witches' cauldrons, broomsticks and wands, alongside crystal balls and a scrying mirror. All of these magical objects help to contextualise the principal theme of this exhibition: that the Harry Potter novels are founded upon centuries of historical tradition, mythology and folklore.

This broomstick is one of our favourite exhibits. It belonged to Olga Hunt, of Manaton in Devon. So the story goes, Olga used to delight in riding her broomstick on Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor every Full Moon, jumping out on unsuspecting campers and courting couples.

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A broomstick belonging to the 20th-century witch, Olga Hunt (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

This serpentine wand is also in the exhibition, thanks to the kindness of the Museum of Witchcraft. In magical tradition, snakes represent the duality between good and evil (and if you were going to own a wand, what better than having a wand in the shape of a snake?). We have placed it next to one of the British Library's own medieval manuscripts, showing a 'wizard' charming a serpent.

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A serpentine wand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

This medieval bestiary describes several mythological snakes, including the cerastes (a horned serpent) and the scitalis (with incredible markings on its back). It then focuses on the emorroris, a type of asp so-called because its bite causes haemorrhages; the victim sweat outs their own blood until they die. The manuscript goes on to explain that the asp can be caught if a conjurer sings to it in its cave, making it fall asleep. This allows the snake charmer (shown holding what seems to be a wand) to remove the precious stone that grows on the asp’s forehead.

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A snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r

Another impressive object in Harry Potter: A History of Magic is this cauldron. According to the Museum of Witchcraft, it exploded when three witches were attempting to conjure up a spirit on the beach. They fled in terror, and the cauldron was only later retrieved from where it had landed on the rocks.

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An exploded cauldron (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

There are a number of Museum of Witchcraft items in the Divination section of the exhibition, including a scrying mirror, which once belonged to the witch, Cecil Williamson (d. 1999). He warned that, if you gaze into it, ‘and suddenly see someone standing behind you, whatever you do, do not turn around’. Also in the same room is this palmistry hand, which accompanies a 14th-century treatise on chiromancy. On the right hand of this medieval manuscript, a vertical line running across the palm reads, ‘this line represents love’. A vertical line running between the middle and index finger has a less fortunate meaning: ‘This line signifies a bloody death and if the line reaches unto the middle of the finger it signifies a sudden death.’ Other lines predict ailments and diseases, such as eye problems and the plague, and mental traits, such as courage, humility and infidelity.

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A palmistry hand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

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A fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library until 28 February 2018. We are extremely grateful to our partners (The Blair Partnership, Pottermore, Bloomsbury Publishing, Google Arts and Culture) for their support, as well as to our many lenders for helping to make the exhibition so magical.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 December 2017

A medieval recipe for gingerbread

‘Tis the season to be merry, and what better way to celebrate than enjoy a festive treat of gingerbread. A medieval recipe for gingerbread features in a 15th-century English cookery book of extravagant banquets held at the British Library (Harley MS 279). Unlike our modern cake or biscuit-like version of gingerbread, the medieval recipe is more similar to confectionery in texture but experts agree that it will satisfy any sweet-tooth.

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The opening of a medieval recipe for gingerbread, from Harley MS 279, f. 27v

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Continued: a medieval recipe for gingerbread, from Harley MS 279, f. 28r

        Gyngerbrede-

        Take a quart of hony, & seethe it, & skyme

        it clene. take Safroun pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on. take gra-

        tyd Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y lechyd.

        then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther on y now. then make yt

        square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt. take when thou lechyst hyt

        an caste Box leves a bouyn y stykyd ther on. on clowys. And

        if thou wolt haue it Red coloure it with Saunderys y now.

The recipe calls for honey, saffron and powdered pepper to be mixed with grated bread. Cinnamon is then added before the gingerbread is shaped and cut into slices, and finally decorated with box leaves attached to cloves. If you wish to colour the gingerbread red, you may add saunders (sandlewood) as dye.

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Miniature of a zinziber, or ginger plant (left) with a zedoary, or turmeric plant, from a medieval herbal, Egerton MS 747, f. 105v

Keen-eyed readers may have noticed that the recipe is missing one key ingredient – ginger! We can speculate that this ingredient may have been left out accidentally by the scribe, but we cannot know for sure. Ginger was a popular spice in more luxurious medieval culinary recipes, especially winter dishes. Along with cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, ginger was believed to have heating properties, and it was thought to be able to warm the stomach and aid the digestive process. These spices are still found in modern Christmas dinner recipes, so medieval gingerbread will complement your holiday roast nicely.

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Miniature of a banquet with courtiers, servants, and dogs, from Harley MS 4372, f. 215v

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

 

 

16 December 2017

Internship on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project

Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in history, art history or other relevant subject to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. As part of this project, 800 illuminated manuscripts made in England and France before 1200 are being digitised and interpreted for both scholars and the general public. The internship is based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department at the Library.

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The Annunciation scene from a 12th-century manuscript: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 3r

The focus of the internship will be to assist the curatorial team in all aspects of the project, such as creating and enhancing our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue records, and publicising them in blogposts and other interpretative material. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts and providing talks for students and visitors. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start in March 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of this internship (reference 01677) can be found here.

Closing Date: 14 January 2018

Interviews will be held on 2 February 2018. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

 

Tuija Ainonen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo