THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

24 posts categorized "Humanities"

24 November 2017

Gifts for manuscripts lovers

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Books make great presents — just ask Charlemagne, Alcuin, Anne of Burgundy, Henry VI, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, all of whom gave or received manuscripts for Christmas or New Year. So, now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, we would like to recommend some of our colleagues' wonderful recent publications as gifts for the historian/art-lover/calligrapher/bibliophile in your life.

Tudor Monarchs

This year saw the publication of Andrea Clarke’s fantastic Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters. This book contains transcriptions and translations, images and discussions of dozens of original documents. These include letters from Wolsey to Cromwell, a letter jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Wolsey, and the draft of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech (‘I have the heart and stomach of a king ...’). For everyone who is interested in the Tudors, this beautifully written book is a wonderful way to get to know the people behind the portraits. It is an indispensable guide to some of the most significant surviving documents from the Tudor period, and you can buy it here.

Art of the Bible stack

For art lovers, there is Kathleen Doyle’s and Scot McKendrick’s The Art of the Bible. This gorgeously illustrated book explores 1,000 years of history. It examines the diverse ways in which scribes and artists from Iraq to Northumbria to Ethiopia have presented sacred texts. Each page is breath-taking. This book is also available in French, German, Dutch and Italian. Buy it here.

Our other recent publications are the books associated with the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. One of these is intended for children (Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic) and the other for a general audience (Harry Potter: A History of Magic). Buy them here.

Harry Potter Book Cover

And don’t just take our word for it — the Guardian has recommended Harry Potter: A History of Magic as one of the top 10 books to buy this holiday season. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is currently the best-selling item in the British Library shop, so order it soon!

A range of other books relating to medieval manuscripts and magic are available in the British Library shop, including Sophie Page’s Magic in Medieval Manuscripts and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. There are also postcards and even Oyster Card holders featuring medieval manuscripts in the British Library's shop. So whether you are transfixed by the Tudors, enthralled by illuminations or fascinated by phoenixes, there is something for everyone this Christmas.

 

15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

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Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

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Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

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13 January 2017

New PhD Placements: Greek Papyri in the British Library

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The British Library is offering a PhD placement opportunity for a student working on Greek papyri. This three-month placement will allow someone studying various aspects of Greek literature, papyrology, Late Antique history and religion to have first-hand experience with the ancient sources preserved in one of the world’s most renowned collections of papyri.

Papyrus 2068

Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play ‘The Trackers’ (Ichneutae), 2nd half of the 2nd century, Egypt (Papyrus 2068)

The British Library houses one of the most important collections of Greek papyri in the world, comprising unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical and Christian fragments and a large corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 Greek papyri will now be digitised and then published online with new catalogue entries over the next few years. The PhD placement student will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published in the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed and to Library events in order to promote the papyrus collection and its international importance for the study of Antiquity.

Papyrus 3053

The Bear Papyrus, Fragment of an illuminated papyrus, Egypt, 3rd–6th century (Papyrus 3053)

In addition to the fascinating challenges of dealing with world-famous treasures (such as Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians or the Egerton Gospel) or hitherto unpublished fragments, the placement student will get an insight into the daily life of the British Library’s collection. He or she will assist in the selection and delivery of the material, liaising with colleagues in the Library’s conservation and imaging studios, and checking image quality.

View a full placement profile.

Papyrus 177

Fragment from the Anonymus Londiniensis Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri surviving from Antiquity, Egypt, 1st century (Papyrus 137)

Funding

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current PhD researchers as part of the Library’s PhD placement scheme. To apply, applicants need to have the support of their PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager). The British Library PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Students applying for a placement at the Library are expected to consult their HEI or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to HEIs that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placement opportunities being offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk

 

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

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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01 August 2016

A Calendar Page for August 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 August from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

It’s a beautiful August on the pages of the Bedford Hours calendar.

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Detail of miniatures of a man threshing wheat and the zodiac sign Virgo, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

The month of August was one of heavy labour for medieval peasants, and at the bottom of the first folio for August we can see a man hard at work threshing wheat.  The landscape surrounding him seems hotter and drier than in previous months, and this background is mirrored in the accompanying miniature.  A young lady in blue appears to be saluting the noble peasant, for the zodiac sign Virgo.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Augustus, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature that echoes that of Julius Caesar from the end of July, with a king seated on a throne, surrounded by his counsel (albeit without the treasonous murder).  This is no accident, as this miniature is of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir.  August was named after the said Augustus, as the rubrics tell us, for this ‘nephew of Julius wanted a month to be dedicated to him like his uncle’.  And he apparently got his wish!

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Calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

The emphasis on Caesar Augustus continues on the following folio.  Adjoining the remainder of the saints’ days for August are two miniature roundels that illustrate additional episodes from the life of this Roman Emperor.  At the middle left is a scene of battle; in the midst of this a gray-bearded man looks at the viewer in a similar way as the throne miniature – this may be Augustus himself.  The rubrics tell us that this shows how ‘Augustus won victory from Anthony his comrade’, illustrating the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 27 BC.  Following this is a miniature of company travelling on horseback, many of whom are playing trumpets adorned with banners reading ‘paix’ (peace) in gold lettering.  This mirrors the rubrics yet again, which describe how Augustus ‘gave peace to the whole world in his time’. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of Caesar in battle and bringing peace, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

-  Sarah J Biggs

01 July 2016

A Calendar Page for July 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 July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July. 

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Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat.  Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task.  Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7r

On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar.  This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named.  The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised. 

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Calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July.  At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar.  He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest.  Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’

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Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July,
Add MS 18850, f. 7v

-   Sarah J Biggs