THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from December 2017

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.

Cotton_ms_caligula_a_vii!1_f003r

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

 

13 December 2017

British Library manuscripts in Glass exhibition at the Musée de Cluny

Two British Library manuscripts are featured in the exhibition, Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif (‘Glass, the Inventive Middle Ages’), at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, which opened on 20 September and runs until 8 January 2018. A collection of miniatures from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues and a 13th-century copy of Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius are two of nearly 150 objects that include glassware, illuminated manuscripts, engravings and paintings as part of an examination of the use of glass throughout the Middle Ages.

Image 1_add_ms_27695_f014r

Miniature of a tavern scene with men drinking illustrating Gluttony, and below a cellarer passing up a drink, from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues (fragment), Genoa, c. 1330–1340: Add MS 27695, f. 14r

The scene above is an image originally bound with a 14th-century treatise on the Seven Vices (now Add MS 27695) by a member of the Cocharelli family of Genoa. Possibly used to instruct the children of the family on the seven deadly sins, the painting depicts four men representing Gluttony as they drink in an Italian tavern. The scene also features a variety of glassware: the moderate drinker on the left sips from a glass, the excessive drinkers beside him both drink from bottles and glass, and the drinker on the right has dropped his bottle as he vomits. The cellarer below is passing the drinkers a refilled glass, and his additional glasses are visible on a shelf beside him.

During the 14th century, northern Italy was a leading centre in the production of glass for domestic and scientific use. Venetian glassmakers specialised in making high quality, colourless glassware made from quartz pebbles from the Italian mainland and plant ash from Egypt and Syria. By the Renaissance, the glass industry of Venice was booming with spectacular glassware used to celebrate special occasions across Europe. As prized status symbols in events such as the marriage ceremonies of noblemen and women, Venetian glassware featured opulent glass imitating semiprecious stones, gilding and enamelling.

Image 2_royal_ms_7_f_viii_f054v
Scientific diagram on optics, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 54v

As well as domestic glass, medieval glass was used to create scientific apparatuses and invent life-changing tools. The 13th-century English friar and scholar Roger Bacon produced major works on natural philosophy and mathematics, including the Opus Maius, which he sent to the Pope in 1267 or 1268. In this treatise of over 800 pages, Bacon examined topics ranging from celestial bodies to gunpowder. The British Library holds what is thought to be the earliest manuscript copy of several of Bacon’s works (now Royal MS 7 F VIII). This copy features the text of Bacon’s work on optics known as the Perspectiva, in which he describes the properties of light, colour and vision. His study of mirrors and lenses greatly influenced the scientific community, leading to the invention of reading glasses and magnifying glasses. In 1289, the Florentine writer Sandro di Popozo commented in a treatise on the conduct of family that, ‘I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read and write.’

Image 3_royal_ms_7_f_viii_f089v

Scientific diagrams, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 89v

Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif runs at the Musée de Cluny, Paris (Musée national du Moyen Âge) from 20 September 2017 until 8 January 2018: see this press release for further details.

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 December 2017

The destruction of Sappho's works

The British Library is currently hosting the 2017 Panizzi Lectures, delivered by Professor Germaine Greer on the subject of Sappho. The third and final talk in the series will be given on Monday, 11 December, and is titled Sappho: The Shame.

  Papyrus 739
British Library Papyrus 739

Sappho sang her poems, and there is no evidence she wrote them down herself. However, others in the ancient world did record her poems. The British Library holds a papyrus fragment from the 3rd century which, complemented by a newly identified piece in an American private collection, provides us with an almost complete text of a hitherto unknown poem of Sappho. We've previously blogged about this poem.

Add MS 19352  f. 191r
Girl with a lyre from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 191r

Another 2nd-century fragment, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is more tantalising. It preserves the closing stanza of another Sappho poem from the end of a papyrus scroll with a short note: '[this is] the first book of the poems – [containing] 1320 lines.'  On this basis, the scroll may have contained 330 of Sappho’s characteristic strophes, making almost a hundred poems. Moreover, the clear designation of the scroll as 'the first' book of the poems indicates that there was probably a second or maybe even a third volume of Sappho’s poems, the majority of which is now lost.

What survives seems to justify Sappho’s poetic fame: she wrote in various styles, verses and voices, mainly about passionate love. This 'subtle flame that runs over her skin', as she describes it in a famous piece, is directed at various individuals: her brother Charaxus, as in the British Library fragment; beautiful boys (one of whom later tradition identified with Phaon, whose unrequited love reportedly made Sappho commit suicide); and a number of girls, including Pyrrha, Cydro and Anactoria, as recorded by the 1st-century Roman poet Ovid.

Harley_ms_3487_f004r
Image of book burning, from the start of Aristotle's Physica, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3847, f. 4r

It has often been suggested that it was this love of girls that led to the systematic destruction of Sappho's poetry in the Middle Ages. There is a widespread tradition that, in 1073, Pope Gregory VII ordered that all of Sappho’s works be burnt in Rome as well as in Constantinople. However, this is rather unrealistic: it is unclear how a Roman Pope could command the destruction of texts in Constantinople after the great schism of 1054.

This tradition can probably be traced to a collection of the sayings of the French scholar Joseph Scaliger, published in 1666. Scaliger was probably quoting in turn from a work by Geronimo Cardano, a 16th-century Italian polymath who wrote a book about the transmission of ancient wisdom. Lamenting over the miserable destruction of classical writers in the Middle Ages, Scaliger stated first that Pope Gregory VII in 1073 had ordered the burning of all lascivious Roman writers, and secondly that, in Constantinople in the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus, had burnt the works of comedians and lyrical poets, including Sappho. Scaliger’s dubious remark is probably a distorted quotation from Cardano, confusing the two Gregories.

Add_ms_18231_f105v
Sermons of Gregory of Nazianzus copied in 972: Add MS 18231, f. 105v

Was Cardano correct? Was it Gregory of Nazianzus who deprived us of the poems of the 'tenth muse', as Sappho was commonly regarded? A closer look at Cardano’s statement reveals that this is also a quotation, taken from the 16th-century scholar Pietro Alcionio, whose book on famous exiles contains his childhood memory of a Greek class by a Constantinople refugee, Demetrios Calkokondylas. He remembers his teacher describing how the Greek Church authorities, supported by the Byzantine emperors, burnt eminent classical Greek poetry, including Sappho’s works, and replaced the burnt poems with those of Gregory of Nazianzus.

Reading Alcionio’s note, it is easy to see how the idea that Gregory of Nazianzus, whose poems were to replace those of Sappho, became twisted into a book-burning inquisitor. However, the question still remains: could the Greek teacher’s information be correct? We have no information whatsoever about the Greek Church burning books other than suspicious or heretic theological works. Did the Byzantine church leaders really burn Sappho's poetry? Was it the flames of Sappho’s burning love that ultimately put her own work on the bonfire?

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

A cure for insanity

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.

MANDRAKE ROOT low-res

The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, on loan from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Identify your mandrake

You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript is currently on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.

Or 3366_0299

This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...

C13579-82

Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter — hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.

G70035-40

It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.

Sloane_ms_278_f048v

Bring a dog

Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.

Harley_ms_1585_f057r

While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...

011SLO000001975U00049000

This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f057v

Stuff your ears with earth

Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!

Harley_ms_3736_f059r

 

You can see some of these mandrakes in the British Library's current major exhibition, devoted to the history of magic across the ages. Tickets can be purchased online, but are selling extremely fast: the show has to end on 28 February, try not to miss it!

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century

Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century

Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century

 

06 December 2017

Chronicles and cartularies – fact and fiction

Regular readers of this Blog will know that we are constantly adding more manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Many of these medieval books have been digitised as part of a major project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation, in collaboration with our friends at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Here are three examples of newly-digitised British Library manuscripts containing chronicles and cartularies. All three have a connection to France and/or contain texts written in French.

Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

Additional MS 11662 contains an illustrated verse chronicle of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, produced in Paris between 1072 and 1079, shortly after the events described took place. The priory was founded by King Henry I in the mid-11th century, on or near the site of a Merovingian church just outside Paris, dedicated to St Martin, the Roman soldier who gave his cloak to a poor beggar.  

Narrative illustrations in chronicles are rare in the Romanesque period, and these are unique early examples of the scenes represented. The text includes a copy of the foundation charter by Henry I, dated 1059–1060, and Philip I's confirmation of the donation of Janville and Neuvy-en-Beauce to Saint-Martin-des-Champs (1065). A page is missing after f. 4, but a complete copy of the text with its illuminations was made in Paris c. 1245 (now BnF, nouv. acq. lat. 1359).

Add_ms_11662_f004r

Henry I of France on his throne, pointing to a drawing of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, in the Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. At the bottom of the page, he presents the foundation charter to the canons of the priory; on the charter is written 'Libertas aecclesia Sancti Martini': Add MS 11662, f. 4r.

Add_ms_11662_f005v

Philip I of France on his throne, surrounded by his court, giving the charter to the canons. Members of the court are named and the churches of Saint-Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Samson of Orléans are illustrated to his left: Add MS 11662, f. 5v

The chronicle is followed by a modern transcription of the text with one of the images (f. 13r) and an index added by an earlier owner. Baron de Joursanvault (1748–1792), whose arms are found on f. 10r.

Add_ms_11662_f013r

An 18th-century transcription of the chronicle: Add MS 11662, f. 13r

The next two manuscripts are associated with St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, founded by Archbishop Augustine (r. 597–604) in the early 7th century. The church, originally known as SS Peter and Paul, was re-founded by King Æthelberht (r. 860–866) to house ‘the bodies of Augustine himself and all the bishops of Canterbury and the kings of Kent’ (Bede, Historia Anglorum, I.33). In the 11th century, the possessions of the convent of Minster-in-Thanet, founded by St Mildreth in the 690s, were acquired by the abbey along with her relics, allegedly donated by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035).

Lives of the Canterbury saints

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f002r

The opening page with a charter granting privileges to St Augustine’s Abbey. The name of its former owner, Sir Robert Cotton’s, is inscribed at the bottom: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 2r

Much of this volume, copied in the 12th century, consists of hagiographical works by Goscelin, a monk of the abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, northern France, who came to England in the 11th century and who visited many monasteries, collecting material on English saints. The manuscript contains Goscelin's writings on the miracles and translation of St Augustine, as well as a Life of St Mildreth and other texts relating to the early archbishops of Canterbury. On f. 25r, an otherwise blank page, are notes in very faint pencil, written in Old French, probably dating to the 14th century.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f005v

Display initial at the beginning of Goscelin, Historia minor de adventu sancti Augustini: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 5v

Monastic institutions in the Middle Ages often manufactured documents granting themselves land and privileges. A series of spurious charters and papal privileges follows Goscelin's works in this collection, including a charter of King Edward the Confessor written in a 15th-century hand (ff. 276r–v) and two charters of King Æthelberht I of Kent in Anglo-Caroline script (ff. 277r–279r).

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f277r

A full-page historiated initial 'I' depicting King Æthelberht I of Kent, holding a scroll in his right hand and a document in his left: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 277r

A cartulary of St  Augustine’s, Canterbury

A fragmentary 12th-century cartulary owned by St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, is the first item in this composite manuscript, comprising five booklets bound together in the early modern period (Harley MS 337). The Canterbury cartulary contains various papal and imperial privileges, including the confirmation of a privilege granted by Pope Innocent III and correspondence between Calixtus II (r. 1119–1124) and Henry V (r. 1111–1125), the Holy Roman Emperor, relating to the investiture controversy.

Harley_ms_337_f001r

A decorated initial at the beginning of the cartulary: Harley MS 337, f. 1r

Also bound with these earlier works is ‘the Harleian Roll’, so-named because it contains a series of shields, painted around 1314, decorating a work in Anglo-Norman French by William of Waddington, the Manuel de Pechiez. A total of 126 armorial shields in colours are found in the upper margins and the outlines of unfinished shields are sketched in brown ink on the remaining pages.

Harley_ms_337_f015v

A fragment from the Manuel des Pechiez, with armorial shields including that of Sir Giles of Argentein, killed at Bannockburn in 1314: Harley MS 337, f. 15v

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

03 December 2017

Renaissance illumination at the Louvre

Two Renaissance manuscripts from the British Library collections are currently on loan to the Louvre in Paris, where they are displayed in an exhibition devoted to King François I of France (r. 1515–1547) as a collector of Netherlandish art.

Harley_ms_6205_f003r

François I pictured in a medallion above Julius Caesar, with his initials FM, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 3r

François I was a great patron of the arts, fostering the ideals of the Renaissance and humanism in France during his reign and sponsoring artists, musicians and craftsmen. He is well-known for his love for — and acquisition of — things Italian, but his extensive purchases of tapestries, objets d’art, paintings and miniatures show that his taste extended to artworks in the Netherlandish style, equally important at this period. Bringing together many of these objects, the Louvre's exhibition focuses on the influence of Netherlandish artists in France in the first half of the 16th century and the king's patronage. Lesser-known Netherlandish artists brought to the fore include Godefroy le Batave, Jean Clouet and Noël Bellemare, who worked in the ateliers that produced our two manuscript treasures on show in the exhibition.

Les Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique

The first is a manuscript that was made specifically for François by his former preceptor and almoner, the Franciscan friar, François Desmoulins de Rochefort (d. 1526).

Harley_ms_6205_f036v

A miniature of Caesar and his horse in the midst of a battle, with the dialogue between him (in blue) and François (‘Le Roy’, in red) beneath, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 36v

In a famous victory, François I defeated the Swiss pikemen at Marignan in 1515. This work draws parallels between the Swiss campaigns of the French king and those of Julius Caesar in his ‘Gallic wars’, taking the form of conversations between the two conquerors.

Harley_ms_6205_f009v

The Swiss villages burning, with soldiers and peasants dancing, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 9v 

After the death of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1519, François I’s candidacy for this crown was strongly promoted by those around him. The Harley manuscript is the first of a series of three volumes made with this aim, perhaps commissioned by his mother, Louise of Savoie, for her ‘petit cesar’ from the author, François Desmoulins. The Dutch astronomer and theologian, Albert Pigghe (b. c. 1490, d. 1542), supervised the creation of the maps and may also have been the scribe. The other two volumes survive as Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS fr. 13429 and Chantilly, Musee Conde, MS 764/1139. The miniatures were painted by Godefroy de Batave, a Dutch artist trained in Antwerp who worked under his supervision. The portrait medallions on f. 3r and also those in the BnF volume have been attributed to Jean Clouet, who painted the famous portrait of François I that is also in the exhibition.

François I’s hopes of winning the crown of the Holy Roman Empire were dashed when his rival, Charles V, was elected emperor in 1519. Further humiliation followed with his defeat at the hands of Charles at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, and he went so far as to form an alliance with the Turkish emperor, the fearsome Suleiman the Magnificent. This image in a manuscript made thirty or more years later glorifies the supposed triumphs of Charles V over his enemies, including François and Suleiman.

Add_ms_33733_f005r

A portrait of François I from after his death (third from left) in a miniature of a scene from the Triumphs of Emperor Charles V: the Emperor enthroned among his enemies, including Suleiman the Magnificent and Pope Clement VII, c. 1556–c. 1575: Additional MS 33733, f. 5r

Book of Hours attributed to the Bellemare group

Add_ms_35318_f032v

The Visitation, with St Anne and the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 32v

The second British Library manuscript on loan to the Louvre is an exquisite Book of Hours with fifteen full page miniatures, each embellished with a gold Italianate tabernacle frame. A group of illuminators who supplied decorated Books of Hours to the court of France at this time, known as the Bellemare Group after the artist Noël Bellemare, used a style reminiscent of the Antwerp Mannerists, characterised by brilliant, rather unnatural colours.

Add_ms_35318_f069v

David making a sacrifice, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 69v

Although this work is not directly associated with François I, it is a further example of the influence of Netherlandish style on the artworks produced within his court circles.

Add_ms_35318_f013r

John the Evangelist pointing to the Vision of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 13r

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to François Ier et l’Art des Pays-Bas, on at the Musee du Louvre until 15 January 2018.

                                                                                                                                                             

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 December 2017

Germaine Greer on Sappho

This year's Panizzi lectures at the British Library will be delivered by Germaine Greer, on the subject of Sappho, one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to have written poems in Greek. We have a special affection for Sappho in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts section of the Library. Earlier this year we wrote on this blog about The Mystery of Sappho, exploring why only a fraction of her poetry survives.

Professor Greer will be giving three lectures on Sappho and her poetry, on Monday 4 December (The Witnesses); Thursday 7 December (The Glory); and Monday 11 December (The Shame). Each lecture begins at 19.00 and is free to attend, with places allocated on a first come, first served basis. We're delighted that Sappho is the subject of this year's lectures, and hope that many of you are able to come along to the British Library to witness them. As we noted earlier this year, only a few fragments of Sappho's poems survive, and scholars continue to debate why this might be the case.

Sappho

Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 739

The 2017 Panizzi Lectures take place at the British Library's Knowledge Centre Theatre on 4 December, 7 December and 11 December.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 December 2017

A calendar page for December 2017

Happy last month of 2017, dear readers! It’s hard to believe the year is nearly over — and we’re a bit sad to be leaving behind the fabulous characters in the calendar of Add MS 36684! As always, if you’d like to know more about the whole manuscript, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011. 

Add_ms_36684_f013r Add_ms_36684_f013r
Calendar pages for December, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320: Add MS 36684, ff. 12v–13r

Our artist has pulled out all the stops for his last calendar pages. In addition to the fabulous birds and hybrid animals decorating the borders of the first folio, there are two fully nude men and one partially nude woman (our labour of the month — more on her in a minute). The nude man in the left margin (modesty protected by the bar border) is having his nose nibbled on by a small animal, whose body was sadly cut off when the manuscript’s leaves were cropped. A dragon roars angrily below, and farther below him — again cropped — is the backside of another nude figure. In the right margin stands another nude man, complete with doe-ears and antennae. The bas-de-page shows a woman’s head atop a long, orange neck extending from between two legs, which are topped with wings.  

Add_ms_36684_f012v
Details of marginal figures: Add MS 36684, f. 12v

In the calendar entries themselves, you will notice two days outlined in gold ink. These can be considered one step up from the feast days (shown in red letters), as they are connected to the life of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. On the first page, on 8 December, is the celebration of the Virgin Mary’s conception; and on the second page, as is expected on 25 December, is the birth of Christ.  

December’s labour of the month is a partially nude woman baking bread in a brick oven. Baking and feasting are the traditional labours for the month of December; perhaps she has discarded some clothing because it’s hot in there!   

Add_ms_36684_f012v labour
Labour of the month for December: Add MS 36684, f. 12v

On the second page, we see the artist’s omission of the zodiac figure of Virgo, back in August, has left him without an established image to put in the niche. Having run through the rest of the zodiac figures a month early, either by choice or by mistake, he is left to make his own figure for December. Luckily for us, he presents a characteristically fantastic beast — green head, single orange horn, rose coloured body, and bright orange legs. For the first time in the calendar, there are not two heraldic hybrid figures on either side of the niche, but rather, a single creature with the head of a man and a long blue tail.   

Add_ms_36684_f013r
“Zodiac” figure for December: Add MS 36684, f. 13r

While our monthly discussion of Add MS 36684 is now at an end, remember you can go and look at the entire manuscript whenever you’d like on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here’s to the end of a great year! 

Taylor McCall 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval