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19 March 2017

A Tale as Old as Time

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Magic is in the air this weekend, as audiences worldwide have been going to see Disney’s live action remake of its classic animated tale, Beauty and the Beast. In Disney’s version of this classic tale, an enchantress places a curse on a vain prince which turns him into a hideous beast. If the prince does not learn to love another by the time the last petal falls on a magical rose, he will remain in his beastly state forever. Some years later, a young village girl, known for her love of reading and beauty, is taken prisoner in his castle. Naturally, romance ensues and Belle and her now-handsome prince live ‘happily ever after’.

  Royal_ms_11_e_xi_f002v
'Canon fuga in dyatessaron': from Magister Sampson’s Motets, Low Countries (Antwerp), c. 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2v

Contrary to some reviewers, who describe the setting of Disney’s film as ‘medieval’, Disney’s adaptation was based on the fairytale by the French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, written in 1741. However, like many fairy tales composed during the 17th and 18th centuries, these narratives have roots which reach back into antiquity and draw on aspects of medieval and early modern life, from the use of roses in heraldry to its portrayal of literate women to the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story itself.

A particularly popular aspect of Disney’s adaptation of this tale is Belle's love of literature and enthusiasm for reading. There are numerous examples of women from the medieval period that wrote texts of their own, and clearly shared this same love of the written word.

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Her nose stuck in a book: detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410–1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

In a recent post, we explored the work of female scribes in manuscripts dating back to the 2nd century BC. In these early texts, it is possible to deduce from the context, content and the pronouns used that it may have been written by a woman. Later in the Middle Ages, it is possible to identify specific women who wrote, read or owned a variety of books. A particularly well known female author is Christine de Pizan (1364–1430).  One of Christine’s most famous works, The Book of the City of the Ladies, was written for Isabel of Bavaria, Queen consort of Charles VI of France, and discussed the important contributions to society made by women in the past.

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Be our guest: detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabel of Bavaria, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Another medieval female writer from the medieval period was Marie de France (1160–1215). Although little is known about Marie’s personal life, it is clear that she had an interest in literature and a desire to share her passion with others. During her lifetime, she translated part of the collection of Aesop’s fables and wrote about the importance of proverbs to moral instruction within society.

Marie also composed 21 short lais poems. These lais were romantic narratives, which glorified the concept of courtly love through the adventures of the main characters. In one particular lai Marie combined the theme of love with the supernatural and fairytale motifs to create a story that will be familiar to fans of the Beauty and the Beast tale.

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The tale of Bisclavret: from the lais of Marie de France, c. 1250–75, England (Oxford?), Harley MS 978, f. 131v

This lai is called Bisclavret (or The Werewolf), and tells of a baron who shape-shifts weekly into a wolf. He disappears from his home for three days, and then reverts to his human form by putting his clothes back on. When his wife discovers his secret, she decides to get rid of him by sending a knight, her suitor, to steal his clothes after his next transformation. Bisclavret, unable to return to his human form, is forced to spend the rest of his life roaming the woods. His luck changes, however, when the king finds him and adopts him as a pet. But the story unravels when the king takes him on a visit to his former lands, now governed by his wife and her suitor. Seeing his wife, Bisclavret goes into a rage, attacks her and rips off her nose. She then confesses her deeds and returns the stolen clothes, enabling Bisclavret to change back to his human form and regain his lands. This is, of course, a much darker version than Disney’s joyful adapatation.

Royal MS 10 E IV  f. 73r
Positively primeval! A woman demonstrates displeasure at a wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–40,
Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Nor was Marie de France’s tale the only instance of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type story in medieval art and literature. Wodewoses, or hairy wild men from the forest, often appear in the margins of manuscripts attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to woo beautiful women. There were also stories about a handsome young knight forced to marry a much older woman, who became beautiful when he learned to respect her. This is the plot of the Wife of Bath’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

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The beginning of the Wife of Bath's Tale: England, mid-15th century, Harley MS
1758, f. 97v 

As a female who loves to read and marvels at the contents of a library, Belle continues to be an important role model for young girls who share this love of the written word. Christine de Pizan and Marie de France are just two examples of many women throughout history who were clearly passionate about reading and writing texts of their own. Marie de France’s story of physical transformation as a barrier of love is just one example of how fairytale narratives recur throughout history, and still delight audiences today. One could even say that this kind of narrative is a tale as old as time…

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Beauty is found within: historiated initial with a rose, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 13v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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28 February 2017

Pancake Tuesday

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Today is Pancake Tuesday, when many cooks whip up pancakes in every size, shape and flavour! This popular tradition coincides with Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter, and during the Middle Ages this time was observed by fasting. As the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday was marked by families indulging in foods forbidden over the fasting period, including meat, fats, eggs and milk. These were also foodstuffs that would not remain fresh over the 40-day fasting period, so it was necessary for households to use up these ingredients.

One common dish that combined fats, milk and eggs, with an addition of flour, was the pancake. Did you know that the British Library holds a 13th-century recipe for pancakes from an English collection of culinary recipes (now Additional MS 32085)?

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Detail of a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

This recipe for white crepes or pancakes is composed in Anglo-Norman French, and it is similar to modern pancake recipes.

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Nice day for a white pancake: recipe for ‘blanche escrepes’, from Add MS 32085, f. 117v

Here is a translation so you can judge for yourself:

2. White pancakes. Here is another dish, which is called white pancakes. Take best white flour and egg white and make batter, not too thick, and put in some wine; then take a bowl and make a hole in it; and then take butter, or oil, or grease; then put your four fingers in the batter to stir it; take the batter and put it in the bowl and pour it through the hole into the (hot) grease; make one pancake and then another, putting your finger in the opening of the bowl; then sprinkle the pancakes with sugar, and serve with the ‘oranges’.

(translation taken from Constance B. Hieatt & Robin F. Jones, 'Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii', Speculum, vol. 61, issue 4 (Oct. 1986), 859-882)

Watch out, though, these ‘oranges’ actually refer to another recipe in the collection for pork meatballs made to resemble fruit. However you enjoy your pancakes, get them while they’re hot!

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Bas-de-page scene of Salome dancing on her hands before the feasting of Herod and Herodias from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 106v

Alison Ray

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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

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The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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09 January 2017

Medieval Spin-Offs of the Roman de la Rose

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Over the past year, many critics have noted the dominance of 'spin-offs', new releases which are sequels to or take place in the same imaginary worlds as already-popular blockbusters. But popular spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon. Take the example of 'satellite texts' of the Roman de la Roseone of the most famous poems in the French language. The medieval equivalent of a best-seller, it survives in more than 300 manuscript copies, and was composed in two sections, written decades apart: the first part was written by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and it was continued by Jean de Meun 40 years later. In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose was copied with other texts attributed to Jean de Meun, which are often described as 'satellite' or spin-off texts. Although the Roman de la Rose tends to overshadow some of these other texts, they were nevertheless popular in the Middle Ages.

Royal 20 A XVII   f. 35v
Image of Jean de Meun, from a copy of the Roman de la Rose,  Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340–1350: Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 35v.

The Testament

In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose is followed by a text entitled the Testament de maistre Jehan de Meun. It acts as a morally edifying conclusion to the famous allegorical poem, opening with the lines:

‘'Li peres et li filz et li sains esperis/ Un dieu en trois personnes adoures et cheris'.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit/God in three persons, loved and adored

Attributed to Jean de Meun, the Testament was composed at the end of the 13th century and comprises 544 alexandrine quatrains. The author explains to the reader that he wants to apologize for the works he wrote during his youth just to achieve success: is this remorse a reference to Meun’s work on the Roman de la Rose? Some of Jean de Meun’s leitmotivs are present in this poem, especially his criticism of women and mendicants.

Yates Thompson 21   f. 143
A miniature in grisaille of the Trinity with a finely-worked coloured background, from the Testament, 1380–1390: Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 143r.

The Testament is described by its author as a moral treatise inspired by God and charity. It was elaborated as a spiritual journey for the discovery of Truth and Good in which the author confesses to the reader his awareness of the vanity and finite nature of human life. The poem focuses on the themes of death and on the utility of prayers to the dead as well as the living.

The construction of the poem is inspired by disputation, the exercise commonly practised in medieval universities. The author combines the rigour of university culture with the traditions of vernacular literature. The success of the Testament was significant, probably due to its attribution to de Meun. It was widely disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, though rarely alone: its transmission was closely linked to that of the Roman de la Rose, especially during the 14th century.

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The Trinity with a full bar border with zoomorphic decoration, the Testament attributed to Jean de Meun, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 145r.

The Codicille

The Testament is often accompanied by two other texts attributed to Jean de Meun: the Codicille or ‘petit Codicille’ and the ‘Grant Codicille’, also known as the Sept articles de foi. The ‘petit Codicille’ is sometimes considered to be an appendix to the Testament and is sometimes even entitled ‘petit Testament’. It includes 88 lines of eight syllables per line. Composed at the end of the 13th century, it takes the form of a prayer, beginning:

‘Dieux ait l’ame des trespasses/ Car des biens qu’ilz ont amasses/ Dont ils norent oncques assez’.  

God keep the Soul of the dead/ because of the goods they amassed/ they did not get never enough of these.

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Framed initial in colours on gold and blue grounds with partial foliate border with rinceaux,  the Codicille, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 143v.

The Sept articles de foi

The final bestseller attributed to Jean de Meun is the Sept articles de foi, also called Trésor de la foy or, confusingly, just Codicille (see, for example, ’Cy commence le codicille maistre Jehan de Meun': Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r). However, although for a long time this work was attributed to Jean de Meun, it has now been established that it was composed by Jean Chapuis around 1300.

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Tinted drawing in colours showing the Trinity, 1st half of the 15th century, the Sept articles de foi: Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r.

This is a devotional and eschatological poem advocating contempt for the world and the necessity to praise God, Christ and the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the soul. It deals with the symbolic number seven such as the seven virtues and the seven liberal arts in opposition to the seven deadly sins.

Although it is now accepted that Meun did not write this poem, in 1401 this poem was at the centre of an attempt to clear Jean de Meun’s reputation in a tumultuous debate involving Christine de Pizan. One of Jean de Meun’s defenders, Gontier Col, secretary to Charles VI, sent her a copy of the Sept articles de foi to try to persuade her to renounce her condemnation of Jean de Meun. In response, Christine de Pizan, with irony, denounced people who attributed any works to Jean de Meun. Her answer shows that the poem’s attribution to Meun was already disputed at the beginning of the 15th century.

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Detail of Jean de Meun writing the opening words of this poem:
Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 69v.

The above three texts gained popular success during the 14th and 15th centuries, partly because of their close association with the Roman de la Rose and Jean de Meun, and because they seemed to show the presumed author’s repentance. It is tempting to draw parallels with modern spin-offs, which are often framed as responses to earlier criticisms of franchises and whose popularity is sometimes attributed to their association with other well-known subjects and creators. But the satellites of the Roman de la Rose are also worth analysing as examples of the popularity of devotional literature aimed mainly at lay people.

Laure Miolo

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01 December 2016

A Calendar Page for December 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December.  On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head.  The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough).  On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn. 

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword.  He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world).  The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’.   These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).

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Calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

More on this glorious month follows.  Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings.  On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’.  A lovely image.   The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly.  It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!

-   Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)

01 November 2016

A Calendar Page for November 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for November from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

Winter is beginning to close in on the calendar pages for November from the Bedford Hours. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man feeding pigs and the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

November saw a pause in the agricultural calendar of the medieval era, and so in this month we often see different sorts of labours.  A common one can be found at the bottom of the first folio for this month; in the miniature on the lower left a man is at work beating acorns from a tree with two sticks. Below him a group of three hogs are feasting on the acorns, a delicacy given to them at this time to fatten them up for winter. To the right is a centaur archer, charmingly dressed in a gorgeous surcoat, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the Nine Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a group of nine women surrounding a stream and pool of water. The banners they carry identify them as the Nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration for science and the arts that were later adopted into the Greek pantheon. In some versions of their myths they are described as water nymphs, and in one origin story they were born from four sacred rivers which Pegasus caused to spring forth — a possible explanation for the landscape of this miniature. Rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us that November ‘is attributed to the nine wisdoms’ because of the number nine.

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Calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

The emphasis on the Muses continues in the following folio. On the middle left an armoured man is mounted on a winged horse that has one foot (somewhat gingerly) in the waters of a fountain or pool. The rubrics tell us that this man is Perseus, and the horse must therefore be Pegasus; we may be seeing a scene of the birth of the Muses. At the bottom of the folio the Muses themselves are in evidence beside their spring, kneeling before a well-dressed lady. This is intended to represent Athena on her visit to ‘the font of wisdom’, although this aristocratic and almost matronly version of the goddess is an unusual one.  


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Detail of marginal roundels of Perseus and Pegasus and Athena and the Muses, from the calendar page for November,
Add MS 18850, f. 11v

Sarah J Biggs

@BLMedieval

12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

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Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

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Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

Egerton MS 609 f46 Blog1
Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

Add MS 40000 f34v Blog1
A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)
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Royal 4 D ii f2v Blog1
Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator

@BLMedieval

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01 October 2016

A Calendar Page for October 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio. 

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio). 

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Calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall.  She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

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Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October,
Add MS 18850, f. 10v

 

Sarah J Biggs

@BLMedieval

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