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623 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

07 February 2018

The Lindisfarne Gospels carpet pages

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The copying and decoration of the Lindisfarne Gospels represent a remarkable artistic achievement. The book’s importance lies in the evidence of its production, the beauty of its illustration and the late 10th-century added gloss of its text that is the earliest rendering of the Gospels in the English language. The Gospels were made on Lindisfarne island, in Northumbria, around 700. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be viewed here in great detail, with the zoom function, on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Cotton MS Nero D IV).

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 3r

The book includes five highly elaborate full-page carpet pages, so-called because of their resemblance to Oriental carpets (indeed, some scholars have argued for the direct influence of carpets on their design). Four of the carpet pages appear before the beginning of a Gospel; the fifth precedes the book’s prefatory material. This material includes the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel-books, such as letters of St Jerome (d. 420), chapter lists and the ten canon tables (for more on the canon tables, see our previous blogpost). The first carpet page is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery for three months, as part of the manuscript's regular conservation rotation schedule.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 2v

Each carpet page has a cross pattern embedded in its design. It seems likely that these pages were designed to serve as a sort of interior treasure binding to ornament each Gospel as a mirror of the ornate exterior one that once was ‘bedecked with gold and gems’, according to the colophon. Certainly the affinities with surviving contemporary precious metalwork such as the Sutton Hoo treasure are readily apparent in the carpet page panels, with their interlace patterns, intertwined sinuous and elongated twisted bodies and stylized birds’ and beasts’ heads. 

From April 2018, the Lindisfarne Gospels will be off display in compliance with the conservation rotation schedule, which requires that the manuscript be rested for six months once it has been on show for eighteen months. From 19 October, the Gospels will again be on display as part of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

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01 February 2018

A calendar page for February 2018

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It’s February: time to light candles and clear away some vines, according to the ‘Julius Work Calendar', an 11th-century calendar made in southern England. 

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Labourers clearing away vines, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The main illustration associated with February in both this and a related 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) involves workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.

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February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v

The curling vines are reminiscent of the artistic flourishes that late 10th- and 11th-century English artists used to adorn their initials and borders.

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Detail of an initial with foliate decoration, from a copy of the Rule of St Benedict, England (St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), late 10th century: 
Harley MS 5431, f. 39v

It is not clear why the two calendars are so similar. Some people have suggested that they were made at the same scriptorium, and that one might be a copy of the other. However, the poem that accompanies the calendar is slightly different in the two manuscripts, so the text does not seem to have been copied directly from one manuscript into the other. For example, the Julius calendar does not mention the death of Alfred the Great (d. 26 October 899) and his wife Ealhswith (d. 5 December 902), unlike the Tiberius calendar. Alternatively, both calendars could have been based on related exemplars which are now lost.

The zodiac sign associated with this month is Aquarius, based on the constellation that is said to look like a water carrier. Below, Aquarius is depicted standing on one foot, supported by a staff. He pours out a jug of water. The artist has cleverly posed him so his arm curves around a flaw in the parchment. However, these details are a little difficult to discern, because this manuscript was damaged in the Cotton fire of 1731. In particular, the heat warped the image as the edges of the parchment shrunk.

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Detail of Aquarius: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

One early user of this calendar has put gold crosses next to two feast days in February. The first cross appears next to the feast for Candlemas on 2 February. This feast commemorated the Virgin Mary’s ritual purification after giving birth and Christ’s presentation in the temple. This manuscript was probably produced and owned at a reformed monastery or cathedral, where Candlemas was the subject of an elaborate liturgy. The ceremony involved a procession with candles that were blessed. This was followed by a service where monks continued to hold their candles, at least for the opening section (according to the Regularis Concordia: see Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 14r).

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 6r Candlemas

The second verse marked out with a gold cross is actually in incorrect Latin. The scribe has replaced the name of St Matthias (Mathiano) with the word for middle (mediano), or possibly ‘Methano’. He may have misread his exemplar. The red text next to the gold cross reads ‘sol in Pisces’. It is one of a series of notes about the sun’s position and other astronomical and astrological patterns that were noted in red in the margin of this calendar.

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 3v Valentine
Feast of St Va
lentine: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

St Matthias’s feast day is not the only place where this scribe made a mistake. Another is above, in a verse about St Valentine, whose martyrdom is commemorated on 14 February. Instead of writing ‘Rite…’ (‘Solemnly/customarily…’), the scribe has written ‘Ride…’ (‘Laugh!’ ). It is tempting to wonder whether the scribe misheard or misremembered the verse, since ‘t’ and ‘d’ can sound similar, but ‘-te’ and ‘-de’ do not look similar in this script.

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February, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please see our calendar post for January 2018. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, please see here.

Alison Hudson

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29 January 2018

Glossed Bibles, hypertexts and hyperlinks

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In many ways, glossed Bibles were amongst the hardest manuscripts to create in the 12th century. A glossed book is one where the main text of a work is explained by adding texts ('glosses') either between the lines or in the margins of the page, not unlike our modern notes and annotations. Rather than random notes, however, biblical glosses were compiled by various authors from authoritative sources, and added systematically. In the case of the Bible, the glosses were taken from the writings of the Church Fathers and those of more recent theologians.

A good example is a manuscript from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire (now Add MS 63077) containing the Old Testament book of Genesis with an interlinear and two marginal glosses. The main text of the first chapter of Genesis is written in the centre, with glosses added on both sides. (You can read more about this manuscript, and its fur cover, here.)

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Glossed Genesis, with the main text squeezed into a single narrow column (Rievaulx, 12th century): Rievaulx, 12th century, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Reading a glossed Bible is a bit like reading Shakespeare and a commentary at the same time. The glossed page contains various texts keyed to the main text of the Bible in a system of carefully-arranged references. This is the medieval equivalent of the hypertext: texts linked up to other texts that the reader can access immediately without even lifting their eyes from the page. There can be up to four texts running simultaneously: the main text, two flanking columns of glosses in continuous prose as well as a ‘discontinuous’ gloss of single words or explanatory passages written between the lines of the main text. Glosses often take up the upper and side margins and begin with a paragraph sign (similar to our ¶) to make them easy to locate. The glosses are placed alongside the passage they seek to explain.

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Glosses in the process of enclosing the main text: Add MS 18298, f. 30r

Making a glossed Bible posed a number of challenges for medieval scribes. One way to make the book more readable was to use different scripts for the main text and the glosses. In a manuscript from York Cathedral (now Harley MS 46), the scribe used three different scripts, not including the initial and the capitals for ‘Liber’ (book), the first word in the Gospel of Matthew.

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When texts are so close together, script size and style are essential: Harley MS 46, f. 7r

Another challenge was to make the texts fit and run together from one page to another. Designing the layout was not easy before the age of print, especially when it meant positioning three different closely related texts of unequal length. For this reason, the various books of the Old and New Testaments were always glossed separately.  

With time, biblical glosses became increasingly longer, to the point that they ran over the page. To control the ‘spillage’, scribes came up with the idea of using special signs to mark where the gloss stopped on one page and where it continued on the next. These ‘tie-marks’ work as hyperlinks that the reader can follow directly. In one English, late 12th-century manuscript, these two signs occur at the lower end of the page.

  Tie-mark1 Tie-mark2


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‘Turn over the leaf and follow the signs’: Burney MS 29, f. 5r

The same signs on the verso explain where each of the interrupted texts resumes.

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Burney MS 29, f. 5v

Glossed Bibles had many advantages. They led to new, faster and more efficient ways of reading, of locating information quickly, and of accessing related texts which would otherwise require a small library.

 

Cristian Ispir
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27 January 2018

A mammoth list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks

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We have been hard at work here at the British Library and we are excited to share with you a brand new list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks. You can currently view on Digitised Manuscripts no less than 1,943 manuscripts and documents made in Europe before 1600, with more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF Download Digitised MSS January 2018. This is also available in the form of an Excel spreadsheet Download Digitised MSS January 2018 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

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Matthew Paris, Map of Britain, England (St Albans), 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

The list reflects the wide range of materials made available online through our recent on on-going digitisation projects, including Greek manuscripts and papyri, pre-1200 manuscripts from England and France thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation, and illuminated manuscripts in French and other European vernacular languages.

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Image depicting the Journey of the Magi and underneath the Magi before Herod, from a Psalter, England (London), 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8r

To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages. We also recommend taking a look at the British Library's Collection Items pages, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.

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The British Library’s largest papyrus is over 2 metres long and features a deed of sale, Ravenna, 3 June 572: Add MS 5412 (detail of opening)

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Depiction of Boccaccio talking to the Lady Fortune and a battle in a walled, moated city, from Boccaccio’s Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 35321, f. 180r

Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, events and exhibitions.

22 January 2018

Doctoral Students Open Day – Pre-1600 Collections

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A reminder for PhD students with research interests relating to the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds: the British Library’s Doctoral Open Day for our pre-1600 collections will take place on 5 February 2018. The day is aimed at first-year doctoral students who would like to learn more about finding and using our collection material for their research. The approach is interdisciplinary and useful for students working on topics in classics, history, literature, history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. You can book your place on the Events page. A ticket to attend costs £10, including lunch and refreshments. The number of places is limited, so booking in advance is necessary. 

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Beginning of genealogy of King William I (1066–1087), in the centre, from a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy to Edward I (1272–1307), England, c. 1300–1340: Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5r

On the Open Day you will be introduced to the wide range of manuscript and early printed collections at the British Library and the practicalities of finding and using them in your research. The sessions will help explain how to use and access the catalogues, databases and other relevant online resources relating to each collection area. There is also a session specifically on digital research. In the afternoon, there will be an opportunity to get a closer introduction to some of our collection items.

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The incipit page of the Gospel of St John, Gospel book, Northern France, c. 875–900: Harley MS 2797, f. 132r

 

Programme:

09.45–10.15  Registration & refreshments

10.15–10.30  Welcome, speed networking & EThOS (Allan Sudlow, Head of Research Development)

10.30–10.45  British Library Collections: Introduction & Overview (Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Heritage Collections)

10.45–11.00  Comfort break

11.00–11.40  Medieval Manuscripts (Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts)

11.40–12.10  Early Printed Collections (Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula & 16th Century Books)

12.10–12.30  Early Maps (Magdalena Pezko, Curator, Map Collections)

12.30–13.30  Lunch

13.30–14.15  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

14.15–15.00  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

15.00–15.30  Refreshments

15.30–16.00  Digital Research Session (Mia Ridge, Digital Curator)

16.00–16.20  The Art of History and the History of Art (Alixe Bovey, Head of Research, Courtauld Institute of Art)

16.20–16.30  Questions, Feedback forms and Close

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Miniature of Joanna of Castile (b. 1479, d. 1555) kneeling, flanked by St John the Baptist and her guardian angel with the arms of Joanna and those of her husband, Philip the Fair (b. 1478, d. 1506), Book of Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands, 1486-1506: Add MS 18852, f. 26r

The Pre-1600 Collections Day on 5 February is part of the British Library’s 2017/18 series of Doctoral Open Days, which covers all the different collection areas. You can read more about the entire series here. To find out about how previous Doctoral Open Days have helped early-stage PhD students and what the most commonly mentioned benefits are, take a look at 5 reasons to attend a British Library Doctoral Open Day.

If you do not already have one, we also recommend that you register for a free Reader Pass in advance so that you can make the most of the Open Day. We look forward to welcoming many new postgraduate students to the Library on 5 February.

 

Emilia Henderson

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17 January 2018

Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library

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Early Career Post-Doctoral Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts

Thanks to external funding, we are pleased to announce a new 3 year fixed-term position in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern section at the British Library, for a Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts. The successful candidate will have recently completed a doctoral degree in medieval art history, history, literature or another closely-related discipline, or its equivalent, and have the specialist knowledge and strong research experience appropriate for an early career researcher. The new curator will assist the Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, in all aspects of curatorial work. The principal duties will include cataloguing, describing and publicising medieval and illuminated manuscripts.

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Burney MS 343, f. 1r

A key aspect of the job will be presenting manuscripts in writing and orally to a variety of audiences, including blog posts, exhibition labels and presentations to students and visitors. Therefore, the ability to describe and present a broad range of material clearly and accurately is essential. The interview may include questions about the date and origin of a manuscript to be shown to be shown on the day..

The post holder will assist in the digitisation programme, including the selection of manuscripts to be digitised and the checking and describing of images, so information technology skills, including web-based skills, are also required.  

A strong knowledge of medieval Latin is also essential, as well as palaeographical and codicological skills. Because the post-holder will be working both independently and as part of a team, the successful candidate will possess a high level of time-management skills and the ability to liaise effectively with colleagues in Western Heritage Collections and other departments at the Library.

Full details of the position and how to apply are available here. The reference is 01795.

The closing date is 18 February. Interviews will be held on 8 March.

 

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04 January 2018

Glimpses of early Christian splendour in Constantinople

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For over one thousand years Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a byword for awe-inspiring splendour. Named after the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire there in 324, the city also became the Christian capital of the world.

The Golden Canon Tables (British Library Add MS 5111/1 [ff. 10–11]) are spectacular witnesses to the remarkable quality of painting undertaken in Constantinople to embellish Christian texts. For one modern authority, they are ‘perhaps the most precious fragments of any Early Christian manuscript’ (Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, p. 116). Now mere fragments, they both hint at what fine early manuscripts of the Bible we might have lost and caution against rash generalisations based merely on those that have survived. The Canon Tables are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website to view in glorious detail with the zoom feature.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10r

As we mentioned in a blogpost several weeks ago, as a text the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries. Of the two thousand or so manuscripts that each contains the Four Gospels in Greek (literally, the Tetraevangelion), the vast majority begin with these tables. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2–9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. The present leaves are rare witnesses of an early revision of Eusebius’s tables.

The Golden Canon Tables are a chance survival. Separated from the text of the Four Gospels that they once prefaced, they were added to a Greek Gospels written sometime before 1189. As they survive, the tables comprise the end of Eusebius’s letter, part of Canon 1, all of Canons 8–9 and part of Canon 10. Originally each of the two leaves would have been around twice as large. Both letter and tables are written in an imposing majuscule, or upper case, script on parchment previously painted entirely with ‘shell’ gold, that is powdered gold suspended in a binding medium so-called because this pigment was often kept in a shell in the early Christian and medieval periods.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Each is framed by magnificently illuminated columns and arches that distinctively combine rigorous geometric and linear forms with remarkable naturalistic features. Carefully drawn outlines and regularly applied paint stress the surface qualities of the overall architectural scheme. Elsewhere lavish and energetic brushwork emulate three-dimensional, natural forms, including lushly growing flowers and colourful birds. The letter is enclosed by one wide arch that once extended to the full width of the page and the tables by two narrower arches on each page.

Within the tables each of the arches is inscribed at the top with the canon number and subdivided below into further smaller arches, each of which is headed by the abbreviated name of the relevant Evangelist. Below each of these smaller arches are the parallel lists of section numbers for each Gospel, written in Greek letters and in groups of four.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r (detail)

Within the surviving arches are four complete medallions with male bust portraits, three of which bear haloes. Each of these medallions emulates an ancient Roman form of portraiture known as the imago clipeata (shield portrait) which honoured the dead by a bust set within a round, shield-shaped form. The Christian symbol of the fish is included in the decorated arch directly above the bust portrait heading Canons 8 and 9. When complete the Golden Canon Tables probably contained twelve bust portraits. It has been argued that these memorialised the Apostles and were inspired by similar busts set in the arcades of the rotunda mausoleum of Constantine the Great located beside the Church of the Apostles at Constantinople.

For more information about Greek illuminated Gospels in general, including the Golden Canon Tables, please see our webspace dedicated to Greek manuscripts.

 

Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Die spätantiken Kanontafeln (Göteborg, 1938), pp. 127–46.

Carl Nordenfalk, ‘The Apostolic Canon Tables’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 62 (1963), 17–34 (pp. 19–21).

Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination (London, 1977), pp. 19, 29, 116, pl. 43.

Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, ed. by David Buckton (London, 1994), no. 68.

John Lowden, ‘The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration’, in Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, ed. by John Williams (University Park, PA, 1999), pp. 9–59 (pp. 24–26).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here

 

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29 December 2017

Thomas Becket's martyrdom

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29 December is the anniversary of one of the most controversial events in medieval Christendom: the murder at Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket, in 1170. Becket's assassination brought a bloody end to a long-standing political conflict between the archbishop and King Henry II, who was believed to have been implicit in the killing. In the following decades, an international cult grew up around Becket, with far-flung claims of miracle cures and the re-building of the cathedral to house the martyr's tomb.

Two of the earliest illustrations of Becket's murder, both made in the late 12th century, are found in manuscripts held at the British Library. One of these manuscripts, Cotton MS Claudius B II, has recently been digitised in full by The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project; the other, also available online, is found in Harley MS 5102.

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An early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

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A second early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Becket kneels before the altar, and one of the four knights, perhaps William de Tracy, delivers the first blow, which cuts into the arm of Edward Grim, the cross-bearer; Reginald FitzUrse (identified by the muzzled bear on his shield) strikes the top of Becket's head: Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

The first of these manuscripts was made for Cirencester Abbey, and it contains a collection of Thomas Becket’s letters, assembled by Alan of Tewkesbury. It was made in the 1180s, within twenty years of Becket’s death, when his memory was fresh and his fame was expanding quickly. The makers of this book gave it the kind of luxury treatment associated with the holiest texts. An exquisitely decorated initial, shown below, marks the beginning of the preface, John of Salisbury's Life of Becket. John was a close associate of Becket, and the Life was composed within two years of the archbishop's death.

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The opening of John of Salisbury’s Life of Thomas Becket. Click on this link and hover over the image to reveal interactive annotations: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 2r

The initial 'P' is extravagantly decorated with blue, pink and green vine scrolls inhabited by peering quadrupeds (which remind us of Dr Seuss). Two monstrous faces decorate the stem and bow of the initial. The top and bottom of the stem terminate in ribbon interlace. The whole initial, which looks in the flesh like coloured wire laid over liquid gold, is presented on a patterned background of dark pink quatrefoils with a gilded border. When crafted, the gilding would have been applied first and then the gaps meticulously filled with pigment. The de-luxe treatment is reminiscent of the treatment of the Lives of other, more established saints, and could perhaps have been understood as an expression of Becket's bona fide sanctity. You can read more about one of the scribes of this manuscript in our blogpost, Where's Wally?

The second manuscript comprises a series of five full-page miniatures inserted in an early 13th-century Psalter, perhaps made in the East Midlands of England. The burial of a cleric, perhaps Becket himself, forms the subject of one of the other miniatures.

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Miniature of the burial of a cleric, perhaps Thomas Becket. The upper right monk is holding a white object in his hand, perhaps a fragment of the saint's skull, which had been shattered when he was murdered: Harley MS 5102, f. 17r

Here we can see the two images of Becket's martyrdom side-by-side. There are several contemporary and near-contemporary accounts, some of them by eyewitnesses, of the events in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of 29 December 1170. These two manuscripts reinforce certain elements of the story â€” the number of assailants, Becket kneeling before the altar, his companions watching from the wings — and they bring us as close as may ever be possible to visualise Thomas Becket's martyrdom, though medieval eyes.

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Two early witnesses to Becket's martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r and Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

 

Julian Harrison and Amy Jeffs

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