THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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639 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

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The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

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Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

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Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

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Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

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An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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21 April 2018

Annual Walton Lecture in Athens

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Dr Scot McKendrick, the Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library, will be delivering the Annual Walton Lecture in Athens on Tuesday, 24 April at 7:00 p.m. His lecture, entitled English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew, will be delivered in Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, and is sponsored by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

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

Among other important Greek manuscripts collected by English antiquarians and collectors, Scot will be discussing the Golden Canon Tables, Add MS 5111/1 (ff. 10–11), produced in the capital of the Roman Empire of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th or 7th century. This impressive fragment from a Gospel-book is fully digitised and is available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. It has been featured previously on this Blog and in an article on Greek illuminated Gospels on our Greek Manuscripts site.

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

Another featured manuscript will be the illuminated Phillipps Gospel lectionary, containing readings from the Gospels to be read in services throughout the year, now Add MS 82957, available in full here. This illuminated copy was also made in Constantinople, in the 11th century. Regular readers of this Blog may recall our two earlier blogposts on this volume, A Window into Byzantine Illumination and Handle with Care.

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Illuminated headpiece, in the Phillipps Gospel lectionary: Add MS 82957, f. 59r

These works mark two ends of the chronological spectrum of the Library’s active engagement with Greek manuscripts. The first was purchased for the Library at auction in London in 1785; the second was assigned to the Library in lieu of tax in 2007. Each was a major acquisition, the first the most expensive purchase of a single Greek manuscript made since the Library’s foundation in 1753, and the second the most important acquisition of an illuminated Byzantine manuscript since the purchase of the Bristol Psalter in 1923. Scot’s talk will explore the importance of individual British collectors in promoting the understanding and appreciation of Greek culture both in their own time, but also as a legacy to future generations. In particular it will consider the contributions of the philhellene Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, and the 18th-century London physician Anthony Askew. You can find out more in our essay British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

The British Library’s holdings of Greek manuscripts and printed books are widely recognised for their significance. The collection of c. 1000 manuscript volumes includes two of the three oldest Greek Bibles, the remains of c. 227 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and c. 50 Greek codices dating from before the first millennium. Thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation almost all these can be viewed in full online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Library also holds c. 3500 papyri and c. 4000 ostraca preserving Greek literary and documentary texts from Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Its collections also encompass 60 out of the 68 printed editions of Greek texts produced up to 1500 as part of its remarkably comprehensive sequence of early Greek printing. Thanks to its acquisition of the Cotton, Harley and Royal manuscripts in the 1750s, the Library offered scholars a rich new public resource in the metropolitan capital outside of the old universities.

The lecture is open to all.

 

Annual Walton Lecture

Scot McKendrick, English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew

Tuesday, 24 April, 7:00 p.m.

Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, Athens

 

Ο Δρ. Scot McKendrick, Προϊστάμενος του Τμήματος Western Heritage Collections της Βρετανικής Βιβλιοθήκης θα δώσει την 37η Ετήσια Διάλεξη προς τιμήν του Francis Walton στη Γεννάδειο Βιβλιοθήκη της Αμερικανικής Σχολής Κλασικών Σπουδών στην Αθήνα, στις 24 Απριλίου στις 7:00μμ. Η διάλεξη του έχει ως τίτλο Άγγλοι Συλλέκτες Ελληνικών Χειρογράφων στη Βρετανική Βιβλιοθήκη: Λόρδος Guilford και Anthony Askew. Μεταξύ άλλων σημαντικών ελληνικών χειρογράφων που συνέλεξαν Άγγλοι αρχαιοδίφες και συλλέκτες, ο Δρ. McKendrick θα παρουσιάσει το χειρόγραφο Golden Canon Tables (Add MS 5111/1), το χειρόγραφο Ευαγγέλιο από τη συλλογή του Phillipps (Add MS 82957), καθώς και άλλους θησαυρούς. Εάν δεν μπορείτε να παραστείτε στη διάλεξη και ενδιαφέρεστε να ακούσετε περισσότερα για τους Άγγλους συλλέκτες ελληνικών χειρογράφων, μπορείτε να επισκεφθείτε την ιστοσελίδα: British collectors of Greek manuscripts

 

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19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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14 April 2018

Italian splendour now on display in Treasures

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During the second half of the 13th century the northern Italian city of Bologna became one of the most prolific and influential centres for the production of fine books. Here a succession of illuminators exercised their skills in many hundreds of copies of the Church law, liturgy and the Bible.

Whereas the law books reflected the city’s status as the principal place in Europe to study Church law, the Bibles arose from the presence in the city of one of the largest houses of the Dominican order in Europe. Founded by St Dominic (d. 1221), the Order of Preachers had quickly established a key role within the Church in the promotion of scholarship and countering of heresy. Together with the Franciscans (founded in 1209) they harnessed to these purposes the so-called Paris Bible, a single-volume copy of the Latin Vulgate of relatively small proportions. This Bible included a new sequence of biblical texts and aids to the reader that had emerged from the classrooms and bookshops of Paris in the first quarter of the 13th century. In mendicant hands such pocket Bibles became a potent instrument of the travelling preacher. At Bologna, the final resting place of St Dominic, the dominant influence of his Order led to the production of many more such Bibles than anywhere else in Italy.

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Christ’s genealogy, starting from Jesse, the Annunciation, Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, all at the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew: Additional MS 18720, f. 410r

The Bible now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a closely related manifestation of Bologna’s important role in the production and dissemination of the Latin Bible, although it was produced in a much bigger format. But as in the pocket Bibles, the biblical text of the Old and New Testaments is contained within one volume and follows the same revised sequence, clearly highlighted by running titles in alternating red and blue ink.

Each book of the Bible is preceded by a preface and most notably, divided into the numbered chapters used by modern Bibles. Often ascribed to the commentator Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this reference system is seen in its full maturity in the Bolognese manuscript, with each chapter starting on a new line and preceded on the previous line by the relevant Roman numbers penned in red and blue ink.

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Two Dominicans stands to the left and right of a seated figure reading from a roll, at the opening of St Jerome’s Letter to Paulinus: Additional MS 18720, f. 2r (detail)

Depictions of the friars also pervade the illumination. Two Dominicans in their distinctive white gowns and black hooded cloaks are depicted standing to right and left of Paulinus, bishop of Nola (d. 431), who was the recipient of the letter of St Jerome that recommended committed study of the Bible and came to form an overall preface to the Vulgate. Friars in the brown robes of the Franciscans also appear as the recipients of several of the Pauline and Catholic Epistles.

Yet, in its much larger scale and more lavish illumination, the Bolognese volume clearly differs from the average pocket Bible. As in a few other related Bibles produced in Bologna towards the end of the 13th century, its producers were responding to a different commercial market in which prospective owners were capable of paying for significantly greater investment of labour and talent. Most spectacularly they produced at the beginning of both the Old and New Testaments an opulent page in which the principal initial letter ‘I’ extends the full height of the page and encroaches into the text block to left and right.

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God creates the world; Adam and Eve are drive out of the Garden of Eden; Cain and Abel make their sacrifices to God; and Cain kills Abel, all at the opening of Genesis: Additional MS 18720, f. 5r

Here a richly coloured cascade of figures is offset against a ground of highly polished gold leaf and complemented by historiated and inhabited roundels in the upper and lower margins.

Elsewhere 103 historiated initials of remarkably uniform and high stylistic quality and accompanied by beautifully executed marginal decoration mark the beginning of prefaces and biblical books. The initials of the chronologically arranged historical books of the Old Testament include narrative scenes, those of the Prophets and Gospels are limited to fictive portraits of their authors and those of the Epistles depict both author and recipient.

Within these figurative illuminations the artists adopted an eclectic artistic style fusing Italian elements with those of Byzantine art. The panoply of archangels accompanying the Days of Creation are clad in Byzantine court costume. Crouching men reading from rolls draped over their knees evoke even older traditions. For some of these features the illuminators may have drawn, like other contemporary Bolognese artists, directly on works of art recently created by Byzantine artists.

This manuscript may be viewed in full on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 18720/1 and Add MS 18720/2).

 

Further Reading


Alessandro Conti, La miniatura Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe, 1270–1340 (Bologna, 1981), pp. 45–47.

Larry Ayres, ‘Bibbie italiane e bibbie francesi: il XIII secolo’, in Il Gotico europeo in Italia, ed. by Valentino Pace and Martina Bagnoli (Naples, 1994), pp. 361–74 (pp. 370–71).

Ducento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, ed. by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei (Venice, 2000), no. 114.

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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12 April 2018

Juggling with fire: the poetry of the Gawain-manuscript

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Manuscripts, one of my colleagues once observed, are often like dumplings — plain on the outside, but delicious in the middle. Arguably the best dumpling-manuscript is the sole surviving copy of four famous Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, Patience and Cleanness. These anonymous poems, which are almost baffling in their complexity, are masterpieces of their genres. Yet the manuscript which contains them, now known as Cotton MS Nero A X/2, is a bit of a dumpling. It’s rather plain: the scribal hand is functional and, when originally written, there was little decoration apart from a few coloured penwork initials. Some time afterwards, a cycle of images was added in the spaces between the poems; but you could not, in good conscience, call them the work of a great artist, unless your definition of ‘great artist’ includes someone with a rudimentary knowledge of perspective and a tendency to inflate the size of the human head.

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The first illustration preceding Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 41r

That said, the appearance of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by this book. It is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes this manuscript one of the most important in the British Library’s medieval collections.

Pearl the first item in the manuscript — is a poem of grief and loss, in which an anguished father searches for a lost pearl in a beautiful garden. His search reveals more than just the lost jewel. Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or ‘numerology’. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is described in the poem’s final section. The heavenly Jerusalem is 12 furlongs long, and has 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 — the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.

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The opening page of Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 43r

As well as veining the poem with complex numerological references, the poet’s choice of rhyme schemes is also highly sophisticated. The poet uses a number of rhyme-schemes in the poem. Pearl is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. In simple terms, the first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one — the final line of the poem echoes the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure — reflecting the poem’s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem into modern English in 2016, writes that this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of wild landscapes, knightly deeds and sexual temptation. It begins when a Christmas feast at Camelot — the court of the legendary King Arthur — is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious green knight with green skin and green hair, riding a green horse. He challenges the assembled company to a bizarre game which sets off a chain of events culminating in a meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight in a strange, green chapel.

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The mysterious Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Like Pearl, Gawain also has a complicated structure. It uses alliteration but as well as this, it uses a metrical form called the ‘bob and wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a showy demonstration of the poet’s skill. If writing good prose is a tightrope walk, and writing good poetry is a tightrope walk while juggling, then the Gawain-poet is tightrope walking while juggling with fire.

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The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 95r 

The manuscript was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, which in the 18th century was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House in London. In 1731, a terrible fire ripped through the library and many of the manuscripts were lost or irreparably damaged. The fact that this manuscript, which contains the sole surviving examples of these bewitching texts, might also have been lost makes the book especially precious.

Both Pearl and Gawain feature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval website. On the site you can find an article on Gawain by the poet Simon Armitage, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.

 

Mary Wellesley

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09 April 2018

Mansion's manuscripts in Bruges

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If you visit Bruges in the near future, we highly recommend that you visit the exhibition Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion, on at the Groeningemuseum until 3 June 2018. The British Library is a major lender to this show, which is devoted to Colard Mansion, a clerk, printer and bibliophile who was active in Bruges between 1457 and 1484. Mansion worked with William Caxton and was the first to experiment with engravings as illustrations in printed books. In this exhibition, the style and composition of his woodcut illustrations are compared to images in contemporary illuminated manuscripts. 

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A view of Flanders, from the Trésor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton MS Augustus V, f. 345v

The British Library has loaned three illuminated manuscripts and four printed books to this exhibition. Two of these manuscripts — the Ovide Moralisé en prose and the Trésor des Histoires — were brought to the court of King Edward IV in the 15th century. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a very popular text in the later Middle Ages, being widely copied in both Latin and in various French translations. The prose version, known as the Ovide Moralisé en prose, contains added moralisations that would have appealed to the tastes of the Burgundian elite. In Mansion's book, the scenes from the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece and Helen of Troy have a similar composition to the ones in Edward IV’s manuscript copy. 

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Jason yoking the oxen, with the Golden Fleece on a plinth in the background, from Ovide Moralisé en prose, Bruges, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 102r

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The abduction of Helen, from Ovide Moralisé en prose: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 193r

The manuscript of the Trésor des Histoires, a world history in French, contains some of the most sophisticated images associated with a secular chronicle. The miniature of Pope John XII on display in Bruges is attributed to the Master of the Getty Froissart, whose style is similar to that of the engraver of the illustrations in Mansion’s edition of Boccaccio, considered to be his masterpiece.

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Pope John XII, from the Trésor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton Augustus MS V, f. 460r

There are 55 large miniatures in this volume. The early view of the Flemish countryside reproduced at the beginning of this blogpost is a fine example of the use of perspective and the refined treatment of light and landscape.

The only surviving manuscript of a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des Dames has also been loaned to the exhibition, and is presented in a section on women in society in Mansion’s milieu. Christine’s work was a response to the misogynistic writings of the time, taking examples from the life and deeds of virtuous women in history and mythology. Although the illustrations are sometimes unfinished, they are highly original, illustrating the trials and achievements of famous women. In the image below, Camilla, a motherless infant, is taken across a river in a boat made by her father, King Metabus of the Volscians, fleeing from his rebellious subjects. They hid in the woods, where she was fed on the milk of wild deer and grew up learning to hunt with a slingshot.

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Camilla, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen, Bruges, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 64v

In another scene from the same manuscript, Fredegund, the widow of Chilperic, is shown leading the Frankish troops into battle with her son Clothar still at her breast, employing a clever ruse to defeat their enemies.

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Fredegund, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen: Add MS 20698, f. 63r

In addition, four British Library incunabula are on display in Bruges, two of which are the work of Colard Mansion:

La Bible des poetes [Paris: Antoine Vérnard, 1493–94]

L’abusé en court [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1479–84]

Ovide moralisé [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1484]

Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [Ghent?: David Aubert?, for William Caxton, about 1474–75]

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La Bible des poetes [Paris, Antoine Vérnard, 1493–94]: IC.41148, f. 1v

 

 

Chantry Westwell

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04 April 2018

Reynard the Fox and other curiosities

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We sincerely hope that spring has sprung, and to mark that occasion we have recently uploaded a number of manuscripts to the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Among them are translations of Boccaccio, a glorious missal and a collection of crusader's maps ...

Le Roman du Renart

If you need some light relief, who better to provide it than one of literature’s most endearing and enduring tricksters, Reynard the Fox? This 14th-century copy in French contains fourteen of the Renart or Reynard tales, in which the wily fox outwits his fellow creatures and humans; this vast collection of allegorical works circulated in medieval Europe, satirising courtly literature, the powerful and the Church.

In one of the tales, Reynard tries to fool Tibert the cat, but of course he comes off second best.

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Renard and Tibert the cat, seated with the moon above, from Le Roman du Renart: France or England, 14th century, Add MS 15229, f. 53r

In another tale, Reynard is stuck at the bottom of a well. He fools Isengrin (or Ysengrim), the greedy, dull-witted wolf, into lowering himself in the other bucket so that he will rise. Isengrin is often depicted as a cleric to make fun of the religious orders.

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Reynard in a bucket being lowered into a well by a cleric in a white robe: Add MS 15229, f. 42r 

The Missal of Augier de Cogeux

The Missal of Augier de Cogeux is a glorious missal from Grasse in Provence, whose pages contain an array of illuminated initials and borders, among them angels playing a variety of musical instruments, prophets, monks, lions, dogs and rabbits, and a menagerie of weird and wonderful creatures.

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A historiated initial 'V'(ultum) at the beginning of an introit from Psalm 44, of a tonsured cleric in a black robe holding a crozier; a lion-rabbit hybrid creature in the upper margin and zoomorphic initials with hybrid creatures including one with a spotted body and two human heads and a lion-like creature wearing a mitre: France, S. (Provence, between Toulouse and Narbonne), 4th quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 17006, f. 197v

This Missal, or book of liturgical texts for celebrating the Mass throughout the year, was made at the end of the 13th century for a chapel constructed in the abbot’s palace of the abbey of Sainte Marie de Lagrasse in Provence. It is sprinkled with the coats of arms of Augier of Cogeux, the abbot at this time.

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Opening page of the Breviary, with the Offices for the first Sunday in Advent, with a historiated initial 'A'(d) of the two elders lifting a child representing 'anima' (the soul) to God above an altar, and a full border including a knight on horesback holding a shield and standard depicting the Virgin and Child (right). Angels with musical instruments: a trumpet, organ, lute, bagpipes and tabor, psaltery and rebec (below) and hunting scenes with animals, including a lion holding a shield with the arms of Augier de Cogeux, partially cropped (above): Add MS 17006, f. 8r

A Book of Hours from Paris

The cold weather in March may have been hard to endure, but there is always somebody who is worse off. A Book of Hours from Paris depicts some poor folks in Hell who are having a really bad time, but even for them there is a golden and floral lining. If they can only escape into the border, there is a beautiful meadow with an abundance of colourful birds, butterflies and flowers, though a few devils are lurking in the upper margins to catch unsuspecting souls who climb too high.

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Miniature on two levels, of souls being brought in carts, pursued and thrown into holes in the earth by devils; below, in Hell they are subjected to various tortures, from a Book of Hours: France, Central (Paris), between 1406 and 1407, Add MS 29433, f. 89r

If the worst comes to the worst, one can always go fishing (in an orange hat, if necessary!). Here comes the Sun at last.

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A calendar page for February with a miniature of a man in a hat fishing with a pole: Add MS 29433, f. 2r

The butterflies in this border are exquisite, and making a garland is fun, but the question is whose neck to put it on?

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George and the Dragon: Add MS 29433, f. 207r

So, summer is on its way and it will soon be strawberry season! The borders of this manuscript are filled with more delights – flowers of every colour, fruits and birds, although it must be said that not everyone pictured is having much fun.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Deeds of Noble Men and Women

The latest upload also includes images of a copy of a French translation of Boccaccio’s The Deeds of Noble Men and Women. In the early 15th century, the original Latin work by Boccaccio was translated into French by the humanist scholar, Laurent de Premierfait, as Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes. It takes numerous examples from the lives of famous people throughout Biblical, classical and medieval history, describing their misfortunes with an ostensibly moral aim, but with a certain amount of undisguised relish and sanctimoniousness.

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A framed miniature preceding Book 5 showing Boccaccio standing with a group of figures, pointing to a man in a barrel outside, two swans in a pool (lower right) and, in the background, a naked man is tied to a stake, having his eyes put out, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, Add MS 11696, f. 136v

 


Les Trois Pelerinages (The Three Pilgrimages)

As Chaucer famously wrote, spring is a good time for going on a pilgrimage, and if you need to rest on the way, what better place than a garden with umbrella-shaped trees, as long as the birds don’t keep you awake. We have just uploaded images of a manuscript of Guillaume de Deguileville’s allegorical journey, containing over 140 images to illustrate the text. This work spawned a wide tradition of Christian allegorical literature and was extremely popular in the 14th century.

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The pilgrim asleep in a garden with apple trees and birds; beside him is an old man, in Deguileville’s, Les Trois Pelerinages France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120,  f. 199r

The Book of Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross, with maps and portolan charts by Pietro Vesconte

This treatise was written by the Venetian, Marino Sanudo, for Pope John XXII, to promote a crusade to the Levant in 1321. The manuscript has images of the journey and the deeds of the crusaders in the lower margins. The text is accompanied by a set of maps consisting of a ‘mappa mundi’ or world map drawn in the style of a sea chart, five portolan sea charts of the coasts of Europe and North Africa, and a map of the Holy Land.

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Knights on horseback jousting (f. 149v) and knights on foot fighting with lances and crossbows in a rocky landscape (f. 150r) and a historiated initial of a figure in a white headdress addressing robed figures seated on the ground, in the Liber secretorum fidelium cruces: Italy, N. (Venice); c. 1331 (after 1327), Add MS 27376,  ff. 149v–150r

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A portolan chart of the northern Red Sea (above) and the eastern Mediterranean (below), showing, Arabia, the coasts of Egypt and Syria, with Cyprus, the Nile (lower right), and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (upper left): Add MS 27376,  ff. 182v–183r

Here is a list of other manuscripts that have now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Add MS 10015: La Disme de Penitanche and Gossuin de Metz, L’image du monde

Add MS 10341: Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion

Add MS 22660: Acts of  investiture of the territories of Orciano and Torre

Add MS 18144: A 13th-century Psalter from Saxony or Thuringia

Add MS 19416: A Book of Hours of the Use of Thérouanne ('Hours of Charles Le Clerc') 

Add MS 34890: The Grimbald Gospels. The whole manuscript can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

                                                                                                                               

Chantry Westwell

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02 April 2018

A calendar page for April 2018

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It's April, which means it's time to party. At least, in a calendar page for this month, made about 1,000 years ago, a party is in progress: men are drinking and chatting, seated on an ornate couch.


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Detail of feasting, from a calendar page for April: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The artists of the two surviving, illustrated calendars from early 11th-century England both depicted scenes of feasting on the calendar page for April. They may have chosen to depict feasting in April because Easter often falls in that month. Indeed, in Old English, April was called Eáster-mónaþ (Easter month). Easter was a major holiday in early medieval western Europe, on a par with Christmas. Surviving sources mention it was also an occasion for political gatherings and grand ceremonies such as coronations and important royal meetings, where law codes were issued and other announcements made. For example, the prologue of the first law-code of King Edmund (reigned 939–946) states that Edmund called a meeting of a great number of nobles and churchmen in London, ‘during holy Easter-tide’ (‘halgan easterlicon tid’: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 87v).  

Closer examination of the image reveals a number of intriguing details, from spears and shields to a variety of drinking vessels. The left-most figure (see a detail below) pours liquid from a jug into a drinking horn. Archaeological examples of early medieval drinking horns have been found throughout northern Europe and beyond. In the centre, two men are holding drinking vessels with stems.

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Detail of a jug and drinking horn:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The image may also hint at some types of objects which do not survive in the archaeological record. The seated figures are perched on cushions. Likewise, elaborate couches with sculptures of animals, if they were made of wood, would not have survived. However, it can not be proved if this scene, and the one in a related calendar, were imitating the way parties and furniture were depicted in classical art, or if these scenes were intended to represent contemporary furnishings.

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Detail of a calendar page for April: Cotton MS Tiberius V B/1, f. 4v


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Calendar page for April:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

In addition to the illustration of the ‘labour’ of the month, the calendar page for April has the information and decoration found on other pages in this calendar. The zodiac symbol — Aries — appears in a roundel at the top. Information about the date, astronomical cycles and days of the week are highlighted in rows of red, green, blue and gold. 

There is something slightly different about this page. Unlike the pages for February and March, only one feast is marked out with a gold cross in the margin of the page for April, at the very end of the month. The day marked out is 30 April, which, according to this calendar, was ‘the first day [Noah’s] Ark was carried out of the waves onto solid [ground]’ (‘Pridie transfertur arca densissima abundis’).  The lack of gold crosses earlier in the month might have something to do with the association of April and Easter, since Holy Week and Easter took precedence over other feasts. They could not be marked in this reusable calendar because their dates changed. However, the latest date Easter can fall is 25 April, so the feast of Noah’s Ark could safely be celebrated on 30 April.


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Detail of a depiction of Noah's Ark, made around the same time as the calendar: from the Old English Hexateuch, Southern England, 11th century:
Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

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

Alison Hudson

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