THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from June 2018

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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)

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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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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's 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 Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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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, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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08 June 2018

Registration now open for our ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference

On 13–14 December 2018, the British Library will be hosting an international conference to coincide with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. Registration for the conference is now open.


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A calendar page for December, from a geographical and scientific collection made in England in the mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

The programme comprises twenty-two of the leading experts in the study of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. They were invited on the basis of their long-established study of these manuscripts, their senior professional standing and the high calibre of their contributions to the field. The speakers were selected, with the advice of the exhibition’s advisory group, to ensure that the conference covers the full time-period, geographical range and themes reflected in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The conference will open and close with keynote lectures by Professor Lawrence Nees of the University of Delaware and Professor Julia Crick of King’s College London.

Other confirmed speakers are Sue Brunning, Richard Gameson, Helen Gittos, Michael Gullick, David Johnson, Catherine Karkov, Simon Keynes, Rosalind Love, Rosamond McKitterick, Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Andy Orchard, Susan Rankin, Winfried Rudolf, Joanna Story, Francesca Tinti, Elaine Treharne, Immo Warntjes, Tessa Webber and Jonathan Wilcox. The conference will include an evening private view of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Opening page of the Gospel of St Mark featuring a border and an initial in gold and colours with animal head decorations, from the Bury Gospels, England (Canterbury?), c. 1020–1030: Harley MS 76, f. 45r

The conference will be followed on 15 December 2018 by a symposium in which early career researchers will discuss their new work on manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England. The speakers were selected following an open call for papers held last year.

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Patientia talking to other virtues, from the Psychomachia, England, early 11th century,
Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

As the Old English poem Maxims I urges, ‘Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan’ (‘Wise people ought to exchange learned speeches’). We hope you will be able to join us in December.  

Register for the International Conference only (13 and 14 December)

Register for the International Conference and Early Career Symposium (13, 14 and 15 December)

 

We are very grateful to the donors who are generously supporting the conference and symposium:

The Polonsky Foundation

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Patrick Donovan 

The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections

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Past & Present Postgraduate Fund

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A medieval rainbow

June is Pride Month, an annual celebration around the world of the LGBTQ+ community. An important symbol of Pride is the rainbow pride flag, with the colours of the rainbow commonly representing diversity in gay, lesbian and trans culture. To honour Pride celebrations, we take a look here at rainbows in medieval manuscripts and the colours used by scribes and artists to make them.

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A drawing depicting the rainbow of Noah’s Covenant, from a roll copy of Peter of Poitier’s Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, 2nd half of the 13th-century: Royal MS 14 B IX, 2nd membrane

The conventional seven colours of the rainbow may be best remembered in Britain by the mnemonic ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’: R(ed), O(range), Y(ellow), G(reen), B(lue), I(ndigo), and V(iolet). Pigment colours used by scribes and illuminators were made from a variety of materials, including plants, minerals and animal sources. Ordinary dark writing ink was made from oak galls.

Many scribes prepared their own pigments, the colouring agent in paint. Pigments were made in a powder form, before being mixed with a binding medium such as glair (made with egg white), egg tempera (made with egg yolk), or gesso (a mixture containing gum).

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An artist mixing colours in an inhabited initial opening the entry for ‘Color’, from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, c. 1360–c. 1375: Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 329r

Red and orange pigments were made with natural minerals, including a form of lead that when heated produces a vibrant orangey-red known as minium. Minium was commonly used to outline illuminations, giving the pictures in manuscripts the name ‘miniatures’ (not because they were small). Minium was a cheaper pigment in cost, and was also used in medicine and cosmetics.

The most common yellow pigment was made from a highly toxic substance containing arsenic, known as orpiment. Orpiment reflected light, similar to gold, but reacted easily to other pigments on the page. Yellow could be also produced organically from plant and mineral sources, including the luxury spice saffron that was imported from Persia and parts of Europe. Ochre was a cheaper alternative to saffron, and could be locally sourced in Bury St Edmunds, Oxford and the Forest of Dean.

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A colourful diagram relating to music, in De artibus ac disciplinis liberalium litterarum by Cassiodorus, 9th–10th century: Harley MS 2637, f. 41v. This manuscript has been recently digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Artists could find recipes for pigments in written works such as the De diversis artibus of Theophilus Presbyter (fl. c. 1070–1125). The British Library holds the most complete copy of this treatise, containing instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking. It includes recipes for ‘Salt green’ and ‘Spanish green’, types of verdigris, a green pigment produced through a chemical reaction with copper. Verdigris was very corrosive and was often mixed with saffron to last longer on the page.

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The opening of the recipe for Spanish green pigment, in De diversis artibus by Theophilus, late 12th or early 13th century: Harley MS 3915, f. 18v

Ultramarine blue was the most valuable pigment that artists could obtain, derived naturally from the mineral lapis lazuli. It was imported to Europe from Afghanistan and could cost as much as gold. Later medieval artists often used ultramarine blue for the robes of the Virgin Mary, saints and wealthy patrons to reflect their high status. A more affordable form of blue pigment known as citrimarine was manufactured from a copper compound called azurite. 

Deep blue or indigo was a plant-based pigment, likely obtained in Europe from the leaves of the woad plant. Indigo was used to complement gold leaf and used in night scenes in manuscript illuminations.

Violet or purple colours could be made from mixing red and blue pigments, or made from plants and lichens. One rich purple dye known as Tyrian purple was extremely valuable in the eastern Mediterranean, as it was extracted in tiny quantities from live sea snails, the mollusc murex brandaris. A precious pigment, Tyrian purple was used as a dye for the imperial robes of certain Roman emperors. The dye was also used to colour whole pages in high-status manuscripts.

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A rainbow appears at the birth of St Fremund, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, 1434-1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

Together all of these fantastic colours make the colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky and in illuminated manuscripts alike!

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 June 2018

Two in one: a newly-identified bilingual papyrus

A newly-identified papyrus in Latin and Arabic has recently been discovered in the British Library’s papyrus collections. In the course of the Library’s collaboration with a Naples-based research project, Dario Internullo has identified an unique document: a private letter from 7th- to 9th-century Egypt written in two languages.

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The first page of Sati’s letter in Papyrus 3124

The first language of this letter is Latin, a very lively Latin, in which the sender, whose name is 'Sati' (Sāṭi‘), greets the recipient, his friend 'Iohannes', and asks after his health.

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The beginning of Sati’s greetings to Iohannes from Papyrus 3124r

'In the name of the Lord, I, Sati, write this letter to you, Iohannes. How are you? How is it going? I greet you, my dear friend, and your brothers with friendship, in the name of the Lord. How are you? How is it going? May God, our Lord, keep you safe and sound forever. A letter about your good health reached me: I thank God, because you are safe.'

A new section then starts. The script remains the same, using the Roman alphabet, but the language has switched: it is now in Arabic that Sati continues to address Iohannes. Here he mentions another friend 'Custantin', and some business relating to linen with which they are all involved.

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The second part of Sati’s letter where he starts writing in Arabic using the Roman alphabet

Documents written in an alphabet different from the one that is commonly used for that language are not uncommon, but this particular combination — Arabic written in the Roman alphabet — is rather unusual. This document has an immense significance as it provides one of the earliest continuous texts to register Arabic consonants and vowels, enlarging the corpus of sources for early Arabic. The language of the papyrus is Middle Arabic transcribed on the basis of phonetic principles and free from the influence of Classical Arabic orthography.

As for the contents, the letter is linked to some kind of business — possibly the trading of linen — and it contains a general request for news. The onomastic data seems to point toward Egypt, where Latin imperial names were used in at least two regions (the Theban west bank and Aphrodito). The letter was probably dictated by the sender, Sāṭi‘, to a scribe with a graphic and linguistic education in Latin.

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The back of Sati’s letter recording the sender’s name in Arabic written in the Roman alphabet as 'From Sāṭi‘, House of Ibn Manṣūr', Papyrus 3124v

The newly deciphered Papyrus 3124 compellingly combines two different cultures often considered as opposites, while elucidating a social network stretching from Egypt to Palestine. It also leads us to reflect in a more articulated way on the survival of Latin in the East long after the hegemony of Greek in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

The text of this papyrus has been edited by Dario Internullo and Arianna D’Ottone Rambach, in One Script for Two Languages: Latin and Arabic in an Early Allographic Papyrus, in Palaeography Between East & West. Proceedings of the Seminars on Arabic Palaeography held at Sapienza University, edited by A. D’Ottone Rambach, Supplement no. 1 to the Rivista degli Studi Orientali, n.s. 90 (2017), pp. 53–72. For further information, see the article by Dario Internullo, 'Un unicum per la storia della cultura. Su un papiro latinoarabo della British Library (P.Lond. inv. 3124)', Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome. Moyen Âge, 128/2 (2016).

To learn more about the British Library's acquisitions of Greek and Latin papyri since 1956, please see this previous blogpost.

 

Dario Internullo (Università degli Studi Roma Tre/Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II)

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