THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from June 2018

30 June 2018

Things you may have missed

Summer is well and truly here: "Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu", as this medieval manuscript so rightly proclaims. As well as enjoying the London sunshine, we have been beavering away on our many projects. Here are some of the announcements you may have missed this month.

Sumer

"Summer has come in, Loudly sing, Cuckoo!": Harley MS 978, f. 11v

Registration for our Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference is now open. The conference runs from 13–14 December 2018, followed by a graduate symposium on 15 December. The conference runs alongside our exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

Conference

Opening page of the Gospel of St Mark, from the Bury Gospels, c. 1020–1030: Harley MS 76, f. 45r

Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library, cared for at the British Library, contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knightand the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs.

Gawain

Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

600 manuscripts have now been published online by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we are also producing a new online viewer, a new interpretative website, and a book about the illuminated manuscripts we have been digitising, among other exciting ventures.

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St Benedict and monks, in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r 

Our Manuscripts Reading Room is also becoming very busy, If you are travelling from far afield, we always recommend that you check the availability of the manuscripts you wish to see in advance (by emailing mss@bl.uk). Here is some information on how to obtain a reader's pass and on how to access our manuscripts and archives.

 

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27 June 2018

Networks of Knowledge: Insular manuscripts and digital potential

In the early Middle Ages, ‘Insular’ missionaries, reformers, pilgrims and intellectuals from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England ventured onto the Continent, leaving their distinctive mark on European culture. They founded monasteries that became centres for learning and formed institutional networks that extended across Europe. They brought manuscripts from the ‘isles’ and established new libraries and scriptoria to transmit and expand knowledge. Their efforts are evident today in the considerable number of manuscripts with distinctive Insular script, decoration, texts and techniques of production that are still found in European libraries. Around 75% of all surviving Insular manuscripts are housed in continental European collections, with most of these in Insular missionary areas. Almost 50% now have a digital presence online, which represents a tipping point for digital scholarship on these books.

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‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe’ — in the first words of his Ecclesiastical History, Bede sets Britain firmly in its European context: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Members of the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts section recently participated in a workshop in Dublin and Galway (19–22 June 2018), organised by Joanna Story (University of Leicester), as part of the project ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It followed the first workshop in the series, hosted by the British Library in April 2017. The final workshop will take place next year in Vienna.

This most recent event focused on the topic of ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’. Its purpose was to bring together curators, digital specialists and academics to discuss the new possibilities offered by digital technology for promoting and researching Insular manuscripts. In particular, we examined how digitised manuscripts provide a large accessible dataset which can be searched, mapped and interrogated to help us trace early medieval cultural networks across Europe. Like the Insular networks of knowledge, our research network was fundamentally international in its scope, and aimed to deepen connections between scholars based in libraries and in universities.

Insular MSS workshop photo 1

Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

During the workshop, we heard presentations from those who have curated projects to digitise and promote manuscripts. Rachel Moss (Trinity College Dublin) reflected on ‘The Bank of America Merrill Lynch-TCD Gospel Books Project’, which conserved and digitised four early medieval Irish manuscripts from the collections of Trinity College Dublin. Charlotte Denöel (Bibliothèque nationale de France) gave us an overview of The Polonsky Project — the collaborative project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 early medieval manuscripts and present and interpret them on our shared websites. We learned about the Insular manuscripts digitised by the e-Codices website from Brigitte Roux (e-Codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, University of Fribourg), as well as the potential for digitally reassembling fragments with the new project Fragmentarium. Karin Zimmerman (University of Heidelberg) told us about her work virtually reconstructing the historical libraries of Lorsch Abbey and the Palatine Library. We were reminded of the scale of the task of digitisation by Claire Breay (The British Library), and of the possibility of losing a sense of the scale and materiality of the manuscripts as objects.

We also learned about the software and techniques being developed to provide new ways of working with digitised manuscripts. Ben Albritton’s (Stanford University) tutorial on the IIIF image viewer Mirador had us comparing, annotating and sharing digitised manuscripts from different libraries and websites using the same interface. Stewart Brookes (University of Cambridge) showed us how to use the software Archetype as a palaeographical or art-historical tool for digital annotation, comparison and searching of manuscripts. We were deeply impressed by Christina Duffy’s (The British Library) examples of how multispectral imaging can recover details of manuscripts otherwise obscured by damage.

Cotton MS Otho A I fol 1r multispectral

A fragment of decrees from the Council of Clofesho (747), damaged in the Cotton Library fire, before and after Christina Duffy processed it through multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Otho A I, f. 1r

Additionally, researchers told us about the ways in which they are employing digital tools in their own projects. We heard from Immo Warntjes (Trinity College Dublin) about his new project, funded by the Irish Research Council, to develop an 'Object Based Catalogue' of medieval scientific texts using the data from digitised manuscripts, to trace the transmission of Irish ideas and reconstruct the continental networks of Irish thought. Máirín MacCarron (National University of Ireland Galway) showed us how she is using social network analysis tools in a new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to better understand the dynamic social relationships presented in early medieval texts. The use of digital tools to measure Insular influence in continental manuscripts was demonstrated by Ursula Kundert (University of Würzburg), through her analysis of ‘diminuendo’ lettering.

The event has left us feeling inspired by the work that everyone is doing and excited to be working with manuscripts at such a pivotal time. We are grateful to all the participants for sharing their ideas, to Bernard Meehan (Trinity College Dublin) and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (National University of Ireland, Galway) for being our hosts and guides, and to the National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland for their hospitality. We would also like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for their funding, and Joanna Story and Jessica Hodgkinson for organising the workshop.

Insular MSS workshop photo 2

Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

Don’t miss the chance to see many highlights of Insular manuscript production in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the British Library on 19 October 2018.

 

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25 June 2018

Live like an eleventh-century prince

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to have been a prince one thousand years ago? Would you have eaten off of silver plates? How many swords would you have had? Which horse would be your favourite, and which saint? Who would your friends be? Would you miss your grandmother? Which side would you be on in court intrigues? What kind of jewellery would you wear? We can answer some of these questions — at least in the case of one prince — from a document held in the British Library, dated 25 June 1014.

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Detail of worldly treasures which match the items mentioned in Æthelstan’s will, from a Psalter made in Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 10v

That document is the will of Æthelstan, the eldest son of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ of England (d. 1016). Inconveniently, Æthelstan died in 1014, in the middle of an invasion by Scandinavian forces (vikings). Nevertheless, shortly before he died, Æthelstan had time to divide his possessions, giving us a glimpse into elite English society.

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Will of Æthelstan, 25 June 1014: Stowe Ch 37

In Æthelstan’s will, he bequeathed some of his most precious possessions. These included extensive lands in 10 different shires, several horses, and various objects made out of precious metals. A full translation of the will is available here.

  • Swords/blades: 12
  • Horses: 7
  • Cups/bowls: 2
  • Shields: 2
  • Arm ring: 1
  • Drinking horn: 1
  • Trumpet: 1
  • Coat of mail: 1
  • Golden belt: 1
  • Cross: 1...

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‘To my brother Edmund, the sword that King Offa had’: detail of Stowe Ch 37

The many swords described in Æthelstan’s will have attracted particular attention. Swords were some of the most expensive weapons available in early medieval Europe. Æthelstan’s will indicates how many and what kind of swords an early medieval war leader might have needed. Several of the swords are described as ‘ornamented’, ‘with a silver hilt’, or ‘damaged.’ There is a sword with ‘a silver hilt that Wulfric wrought’ and there is another 'on which a hand is marked.’ There was even one, Æthelstan claimed, that had belonged to Offa, the 8th-century king of Mercia. Æthelstan gave this sword and another with a ‘pitted hilt’, as well as many other things, to his brother Edmund, who became heir to the throne after he died.

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Detail of a feast, with a drinking horn being filled on the far left-hand side of the image, from a mid-11th -century calendar: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Beyond the swords, shield and chainmail, other items mentioned in the will give us insights into Æthelstan’s domestic life. His mealtimes could be glittering affairs, literally: the will mentions a ‘silver cauldron/basin worth five pounds’, and possibly a silver bowl, in addition to a costly drinking horn. On special occasions, Æthelstan perhaps wore his 'golden belt' and arm-ring. He may have dined with his brothers and his ‘dish-then’ (steward or seneschal) Ælfmaer, who received a roan stallion and a damaged sword in the will. Æthelstan might also have shared meals with his retainers and allies including Æthelweard the Stammerer, Godwine the Driveller and Ælfric of Barton. Other members of Æthelstan’s entourage mentioned in the will include a priest, a ‘staghuntsman’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a ‘sword-furbisher.’

Add_ms_49598_f118v AElfthryth possible
Drawing that might depict Queen Ælfthryth among a crowd, from the Benedictional of Æthelwold, made c. 971-984: Add MS 49598, f. 118v

The will even offers glimpses of the prince’s childhood, since Æthelstan mentions two women who were important in his upbringing. The first was his foster mother, Ælfswith, to whom he gave land worth 250 mancuses of gold ‘because she greatly deserved it’. Royal and noble children in early medieval England were frequently sent to other families to be brought up or were cared for by foster mothers. The second major influence on Æthelstan’s childhood was apparently his grandmother, Ælfthryth (d. 999 x 1001), wife of King Edgar (d. 975) and mother of Æthelred: she ‘brought me [Æthelstan] up’, according to the text of the will. Indeed, the first time Æthelstan appeared in the surviving written record, he was listed with his grandmother as witnesses of a charter for Abingdon Abbey. Ælfthryth must have been an important influence on Æthelstan throughout his life. Many of the churches to which he made donations in his will she had also patronised, such as Ely Abbey. Touchingly, Ælfthryth is the last person mentioned in the will: Æthelstan asserts that all his gifts to God and God’s church are done for the soul of his father, his own soul and that of Ælfthryth.

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Æthelstan (spelled Æþelstan) first appears in the historical record in this charter from 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38

Æthelstan’s will also records charitable donations he made for the sake of his soul at the end of his life. These pious donations offer stark reminders of how difficult life could be for those outside the elite in 11th-century England: the will makes provisions for 100 paupers to be fed on the feast day of St Æthelthryth of Ely and begins by freeing all of the penal slaves owned by Æthelstan. Penal slaves were people who were made slaves because they had been convicted of a crime. The will does not mention the hereditary slaves who worked on Æthelstan’s extensive estates or ran his household.

At least two copies of this will were made, for safekeeping, and were sent to Winchester and Christ Church Canterbury. The copies were written on the same piece of parchment, and the word ‘CYROGRAPHUM’ was written along the middle. The parchment was then divided along that word, so that the copies could be verified by lining up the two halves and matching the letters. Æthelstan perhaps took these precautions because he was anxious that the provisions might not be respected. Several times, he emphasized that these bequests were made with his father’s permission.

One copy of the will, the upper portion of the cyrograph, can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can also learn more about Æthelstan, Ælfrthryth and Æthelred at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which will be on display at the British Library between 19 October 2018 and 19 February 2019. Don't forget the prince who died over 1000 years ago, who loved swords, horses and his grandmother.

Alison Hudson

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23 June 2018

The European conquest of the Canary Islands

Europe and the Sea, a new exhibition in Berlin, explores the fundamental role played by the sea in the history and development of Europe. On loan to the exhibition is a British Library manuscript describing an expedition by two French knights, Gadifer La Sale and Jean de Béthencourt, to conquer the Canary Islands in 1402. It contains the Conquête et les conquérants des Iles Canaries, a chronicle of the journey and exploration of the islands, as recorded by Pierre Boutier and Jehan le Verrier, military chaplains to the expedition. There are several surviving accounts, but Egerton MS 2709, dated to before 1420, is believed to be closest to the events, and may have been copied under the supervision of Gadifer himself for an important patron, perhaps the Duke of Burgundy.

Egerton_ms_2709_f019r

Account of the arrival at La Goumera island, from the Conquête et les Conquérants des Iles Canaries, Paris, c. 1405 (after 1404 and before 1420): Egerton MS 2709, f. 19r

This chronicle describes several clashes with the local inhabitants. On the page shown above, Gadifer sailed around the islands and passed the ‘isle d’Enfer’ (meaning ‘Hell Island’, now called El Hierro), arriving at the ‘isle de la Goumere’ (La Goumera) at night. There the French sailors went ashore in a small boat and captured a man and three women who were making fires on the beach, bringing them back to the ship. The next morning they sent a party to find fresh water and, unsurprisingly, the local people attacked them and forced them to retreat.

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Description of El Hierro Island: Egerton MS 2709, f. 19v

On the next page the adventurers set sail for Palma, but were driven ‘by a great storm’ back to El Hierro, where they stayed for three weeks. They discovered ‘great numbers of pigs, goats and sheep’ and, while the coast was rather barren, the interior was ‘fertile and pleasant’ with ‘more than a hundred thousand pine trees’ and an abundance of quails. By 1405, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro had been conquered, although the larger islands like Tenerife put up greater resistance.

Egerton_ms_2709_f002r

Knights sailing to conquer the Canaries, attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop: Egerton MS 2709, f. 2r

On the first page of the manuscript is a striking image of a ship crowded with armed knights, with an elaborate initial and decorative border. The ship, which has been compared to a late Viking vessel in design, has flags at the masthead and at the prow and stern, as well as two shields bearing the arms of Gadifer La Sale, one of the French commanders. The arms of Jean de Béthencourt do not appear, but the arms on one of the flags at the stern have been partially erased, so it is possible that they were his. The illumination has been attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames, who worked on some of the most beautiful manuscripts in the British Library's collections, including the Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), a copy of the Bible Historiale made for Charles de Valois (1446–1472), duke of Normandy, now in two volumes (Add MSS 18856 and 18857), a collection of works by Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431) and Giovanni Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes (Royal MS 20 C IV).

The exhibition, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin from 13 June 2018 to 6 January 2019, views Europe as a maritime continent, showing the sea's fundamental role as a route of conquest, a resource, and a place of imagination and memory for Europeans through the ages.

 

Chantry Westwell

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21 June 2018

A midsummer milestone

To mark midsummer, that most magical of days, we have another exciting update from The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. In a ground-breaking collaboration, the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have now digitised and published online 600 out of the selected 800 manuscripts. The remaining 200 manuscripts will be made available later this year. To get an idea of the range of manuscripts included so far, we have compiled a list (available in PDF and Excel formats) containing shelfmarks and titles, along with links to view the manuscripts in either Digitised Manuscripts at the BL or Archives et manuscrits at the BnF.

PDF format: Download BL_BnF_600_PolonskyPre1200Project_MSS

Excel format: Download BL_BnF_600_Project_MSS

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St Benedict and monks, in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

 

Coming soon:

Our project explores five hundred years of intellectual activity and manuscript production in both France and England. As we move rapidly towards the grand finale in November, here’s a brief recap of what is still to come. In November we launch:

A new joint project viewer to all 800 manuscripts: The project manuscripts will be presented in a new Mirador based viewer being developed by the BnF. The images will be presented in an internationally agreed standard format known as IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework-format). This means that it will be easier to view and share images from different collections. In the new viewer, you will be able to view multiple manuscripts from either library side by side and therefore virtually unite manuscripts from the collections of the two libraries. You will also be able to download an individual image or a pdf of an entire manuscript. 

A new interpretative website, Medieval England and France, 700-1200: We are also developing a new website, hosted by the British Library, which will feature articles and short films about the manuscripts. These will focus on a wide range of themes, such as history, medicine, music and art. We’ll include interviews with leading experts and several short clips on the various stages of illumination, commissioned from a modern artist and calligrapher. This website will be a virtual exhibition area to explore a selection of our collections, and everything will be presented in both English and French.

Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art from England and France 700-1200: In addition, we are preparing a book that will present some of the most impressive illuminated manuscripts in the project, illustrated with over 70 full-page colour illustrations. In Medieval Illumination we will alternate between manuscripts made in England and in France in order to present the similarities and differences between the art produced in each country. This book too will be translated and published in French. Both versions will be available by the opening of the Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition on 19 October (see below), as a number of project manuscripts will be featured in both the book and the exhibition.

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Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: BnF MS latin 11685, f. 5v

 

Other Upcoming Events:

International Medieval Congress 2018, 2–5 July, Leeds: We will be presenting a live update of the project at the Leeds IMC 2018. On Tuesday, 3 July, members of the project teams from both libraries (Laura Albiero, Cristian Ispir and Francesco Siri) will present new research on selected project manuscripts (session 638 at 11:15am). In the evening round table session (with Tuija Ainonen, Alison Ray and Francesco Siri) we will discuss the project itself, the work we do and the different resources we are in the process of creating. This will also be a great opportunity to ask questions or offer comments on this historical collaborative venture (session 938 at 7pm).

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Our readers will also have an opportunity to view some of the original manuscripts in person as a number of them will feature in the upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The exhibition will be open from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019 in the PACCAR gallery at the British Library (tickets are available here).

France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 conference: We’ll also be holding a three-day conference in Paris to celebrate the project launch, and to present more new research on manuscripts included in the project. Mark your calendars for 21–23 November 2018 in Paris at the Auditorium Colbert (2 Rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris). Free but mandatory registration will be available here.

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The entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper: Arundel MS 157, f. 8v

 

Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference, London: To coincide with the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on 13–14 December 2018, the Library is holding a two-day international conference with papers by leading scholars in the fields of history, literature and art history. This will be followed by a one-day symposium for early career researchers on 15 December 2018. Several of the manuscripts digitised as part of the project will be featured in the conference and symposium papers. Delegates are invited to a reception and private view of the exhibition on 13 December. Registration is available here.

Blogs: We will be continuing to blog about interesting manuscripts in the project on both the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, and on ManuscriptaFor inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200).

 

The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

BnF logo from BnF website

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

19 June 2018

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

The reign of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) was a high point in the cultural history of Bulgaria, and the Tsar’s personalised copy of the Gospels translated into the Slavonic language is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. In 2017, the book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. As part of the celebration of Bulgarian National Day of Culture on 24 May, the manuscript was also featured on Bulgarian television. The Gospel-book has been fully digitised, and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander, his wife and two sons, all blessed by God: Add MS 39627, f. 3r

The makers of this book, who probably worked at the Tsar’s capital, Turnovo, drew on the long tradition of Byzantine book production and more recent Slavonic practices. They also conceived it as part of the Tsar’s revival and championing of Christian culture in the Balkans as the power of the Byzantine emperor ebbed and that of the Ottoman Turks grew.

In the words of its scribe Simeon, the volume was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. It now retains an extraordinary 367 ‘life-giving images of the Lord and his glorious disciple Jesus’. Once also richly decorated on the outside, bound within silver-gilt boards, the manuscript was probably displayed during services on major feast days attended by the Tsar and his family and intended to commemorate them in perpetuity after their deaths.

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The Tsar’s three daughters and son-in-law: Add MS 39627, f. 2v

At the opening of the volume, an imposing double-page portrait contrived in the tradition of Byzantine imperial portraits reflects both the artistic heritage of its creator and the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. In this image Tsar Ivan Alexander and his family together receive God's blessing. The Tsar is depicted dressed in imperial regalia and accompanied by his second wife, Theodora, a converted Jew, and by their two sons Ivan Shisman (r. 1371–1395) and Ivan Asen (d. 1388?). On the left-hand page are the Tsar’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, Kera Thamara, stands beside her husband, Despot Konstantin.

Add_ms_39627_f134v

Christ ascends to Heaven above his disciples and Mary; Tsar Ivan Alexander receives the blessing of St Mark, all at the end of St Mark’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 134v

Ivan Alexander is also shown in the company of each of the Evangelists at the end of their Gospels and between Abraham and the Virgin Mary in a large illustration of the Last Judgment prompted by St Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy to his disciples. These portraits promote the full integration of the secular and religious roles of the Tsar.

Add_ms_39627_f084r

Christ on the Cross before and after his death, mocked by the crowd (below) and bleeding from the lance wound, with the dead raised from their graves by the ensuing earthquake (above), in St Matthew’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 84r

The biblical text of the volume is equally lavishly decorated. Within the text several hundred illuminated miniatures illustrate the life and teachings of Christ in the sequence narrated by each of the Evangelists, focusing on his infancy, miracles, parables and Passion. Given the fourfold narrative of the Gospels and the profuse illuminations in the volume, many episodes common to more than one of the Gospels are illustrated several times. Most of these scenes are contained within one relatively shallow, horizontal strip, but some are extended to two or three such strips stacked vertically up the page or restricted to a smaller box within the text block.

None of these choices were the original idea of the makers of the Tsar’s book. They were instead based on the illuminations of an equally extraordinary Byzantine manuscript (untraced). In their frieze format and choice of subjects the miniatures correspond most closely to a remarkable 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels now in Paris that was produced at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and possibly made for the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–1059) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS grec 74). Only one other contemporary Byzantine Gospels, now in the Laurenziana Library at Florence, presents a similarly extended sequence of nearly three hundred frieze miniatures (Florence, Bibioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 6.23).

The individual portraits of the Tsar in his volume replace those of an abbot in the Studios Gospels; the opening family portrait may have been modelled on a now-lost imperial family portrait at the opening of the Byzantine manuscript from which it drew its other illustrations. Later Slavonic manuscripts of the Gospels that incorporate similar portraits and frieze miniatures reflect continued respect for this type of Gospels into the 17th century.

 

Further Reading

Bogdan D. Filov, Miniaturite na Londonskoto Evangelie na Tsar Ivan Aleksandra / Les miniatures de l'évangile du roi Jean Alexandre à Londres (Sofia, 1934).

Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, 1994).

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2004), no. 27.

Cynthia Vakareliyska, ed., The Curzon Gospel, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 35.  

The manuscript has also been reproduced in a new facsimile edition.

 

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16 June 2018

Cotton manuscripts quiz

Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!

The answers are now given below (no peeking!).

1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?

Cotton

2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?

3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?

4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Sir-gawain-green-knight-decapitated-head-f94v

5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)

6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?

7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?

8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.

001COTAUGI00001U00009000[SVC2]

9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?

10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?

 

***

Here are the answers:

 

The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)

Sir Edward Dering (Cotton Charter XIII 31A, sent to Cotton in June 1630) and Humphrey Wyems of the Middle Temple (Cotton MS Augustus II 106, presented to him on New Year's Day 1629)

King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)

Nero (they are named Cotton MS Nero A X/2 and Cotton Nero MS D IV respectively)

Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')

Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford

Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)

King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)

Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)

Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)

Cotton_ms_vespasian_d_xv_f083v

 

 

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12 June 2018

The Serres Gospels goes online

In this spectacular portrait, Jacob, bishop of Serres (b. 1300, d. 1365), humbly presents his Gospel-book to Christ. He is shown at the end of a copy of the Four Gospels in Old Church Slavonic, known as the Serres Gospels. This book is now completely digitised, and is available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Portrait of Jacob of Serres: Add MS 39626, f. 292v

Jacob lived in turbulent times. He rose to prominence through the patronage of Stefan Dušan, who became king of Serbia in 1331 and thereafter expanded his territories. Dušan initially appointed Jacob as the first abbot of his newly-built monastery of the Holy Archangels near Prizren, which eventually became Dušan’s burial place. He then promoted Jacob to the position of bishop of Serres after conquering the city in 1345.

Perhaps acknowledging the exceptional circumstances that led to its creation, the Serres Gospels contains a lengthy inscription explaining that it was made for Jacob at the Metropolitan Church of St Theodore in Serres, in 1354, in the time of Tsar Stefan Dušan, his wife Helena, their son Kral Uros, and the Patriarch Joanikije (who died on 3 September 1354, providing the latest possible date for the manuscript). At the end of the inscription, the scribe signed his name in the shape of a cross as Kallist Rasoder. Rasoder is an epithet referring to ragged clothes, suggesting Kallist’s commitment to a life of humble austerity.

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End of the colophon with the scribe's signature: Add MS 39626, f. 293v

In contrast to its austere scribe, the Serres Gospels is gloriously lavish. Throughout the manuscript, headings, initial letters and punctuation marks are written in gold, and each of the four books of the Gospels begins with a panel of ornament (a headpiece) painted in gold and rich colours.

Most impressive of all is the manuscript’s only full-page picture, the portrait of Jacob making his donation (pictured above). Unusually, it was made by gilding the entire surface within the frame, and then painting over the top of the gold. Where the paint has worn away, you can see the gold shining through underneath. This difficult and expensive technique makes the picture brilliantly luminous.

Jacob is depicted in his clerical robes standing in a supplicant posture with his bejewelled manuscript before him — a self-reference to the Serres Gospels. The inscription beside him supplies his speech: ‘This tetraevangelion (Gospel-book) I am offering to Thee, Christ, my Lord’. Jacob’s face is delicately painted and expressive, and he gazes imploringly at the viewer with deep blue eyes. In the top right, Christ emerges from the heavens to receive his gift.

The inscription in the roundel above contains a poetic prayer from the vespers service of the Sunday before the Great Lent: ‘While the Judge is sitting and angels standing before [Him], while the trumpet is sounding and the flame is burning, what will you do, o my soul brought to judgement? Then thy evil deeds will be brought before [Him] and thy secret sins will be revealed. But before the end, beseech Christ the Lord: God make me pure and save me’.

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Opening to the Gospel of Matthew: Add MS 39626, f. 5r

Despite Stefan Dušan’s death in 1355, Jacob maintained his office as bishop of Serres until his own death in 1365. His manuscript continued to be treasured, and today survives as testament to the spiritual devotion and artistic magnificence of its age.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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