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613 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

13 December 2017

British Library manuscripts in Glass exhibition at the Musée de Cluny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alison Ray

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07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

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

A cure for insanity

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

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

Identify your mandrake

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

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

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

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

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Bring a dog

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

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

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

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Stuff your ears with earth

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

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

Julian Harrison

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The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

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

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

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

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

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

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

 

06 December 2017

Chronicles and cartularies – fact and fiction

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

Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lives of the Canterbury saints

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

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

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

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

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

A cartulary of St  Augustine’s, Canterbury

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

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

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

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

Chantry Westwell

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03 December 2017

Renaissance illumination at the Louvre

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

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

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

Les Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of Hours attributed to the Bellemare group

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                                                             

Chantry Westwell

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01 December 2017

A calendar page for December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor McCall 

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30 November 2017

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to open in 2018

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On 19 October 2018, our major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will open. Ranging from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the exhibition will explore this long, dynamic period when the English language was used and written down for the first time and a kingdom of England was first created. Drawing on the British Library’s own outstanding collections and a large number of very significant loans, the exhibition will examine the surviving evidence for the history, art, literature and culture of the period, as preserved in books, documents and a number of related objects.

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Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, will be returning to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years ago for display in the exhibition. This giant illuminated Bible was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century. Abbot Ceolfrith took it with him on his final voyage to Italy, as a gift to the Pope in 716. It is now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence which is generously loaning the manuscript next year. It will be shown with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book, which was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow and was acquired by the British Library in 2012. The two books are very different: while the St Cuthbert Gospel, which contains only the Gospel of John, can be held in one hand, the spine of Codex Amiatinus, containing the whole Bible, is nearly a foot thick. These two books will be exhibited alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest artistic treasures, and other illuminated manuscripts of international significance made in the late 7th and 8th centuries.

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The tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library Add MS 89000 and the gargantuan Codex Amiatinus (image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

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Two other complete Bibles were made at the same time as Codex Amiatinus. Only a few leaves of one of the other Bibles survive; the third has been completely lost: British Library Add MS 45025, f. 2v.

The exhibition will include a number of outstanding objects, including key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard discovered near Lichfield in 2009, and kindly loaned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils. Objects drawn from the unique array of military equipment which makes up the bulk of the hoard will be on display, as well as the pectoral cross and the gilded strip inscribed with text drawn from the biblical book of Numbers.

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The pectoral cross and an inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, to be loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils (images courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust)

A key theme in the exhibition will be the development of the English language and the emergence of English literature. We will explore the use of writing on inscribed objects and in documents as well as in books, and will present highlights of the bilingual literary culture. The major works of Old English poetry survive in only four manuscripts, and all four will be brought together at the British Library next autumn for the first time. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed with the Vercelli Book on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, and the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be the first time that the Vercelli Book has been in England in at least 900 years.

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Beowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

All the items in the exhibition are remarkable survivals. Over the centuries they have lasted through wars, the Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and their libraries), natural disasters and fires. A significant number of the exhibits have never been seen together before, and some have not been reunited for centuries.

Far from being the ‘Dark Ages’ of popular culture, the kingdoms in this period included centres of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world. The movement of artists, scribes, books and ideas between England, Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world was fundamental to the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and will be a key theme of the exhibition.

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The opening of St Mark’s Gospel, from the Cnut Gospels, southern England, before 1018: British Library Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be open at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

Claire Breay and Alison Hudson

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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.

 

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

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Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.


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Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v

In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and

found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).

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Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r

There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.

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Epitomes of Euripedes's Andromache and other works, Egypt, c. 100-125 AD: Papyrus 3040

Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.

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Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r

The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.

Pyrrhus … holds me

prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...

Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,

as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …

When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,

they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...

Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …

[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails

Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).

The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493. 

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Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r

In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:

‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:

“Are you going away without me, mother?” …

I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —

I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.

I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).

Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.

Alison Hudson

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