Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

29 March 2017

Medieval depictions of the Crusades

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The Levantine Crusades, military campaigns with the avowed purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Christian holy sites in the Near East, took place between 1095 and 1272 or 1291. Long after the Crusader states fell, however, they loomed large in the imaginations of medieval writers and artists, who widely copied and illustrated accounts of the Crusades.

Crusaders at the walls of Antioch, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 101v

The British Library holds a series of manuscripts created in areas controlled by the Crusaders. The Crusaders established four kingdoms in the Holy Land, one of which, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was ruled over by a series of descendants of the first ruler, the Frankish knight, Godfrey of Bouillon. From 1131–1143 the Kingdom was ruled jointly by Fulk and Melisende, for whom the gorgeous Melisende Psalter was probably made.

The Wedding of Fulk and Melisende, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

The Library also possesses a missal, a sacramentary and a copy of the Histoire universelle, all of which may have been made in Acre, the Crusaders' last stronghold in the Levant. It is worth focusing on depictions of the Levantine Crusades in later manuscripts. Two later manuscripts with vernacular accounts of the Crusades have recently been digitised: Royal MS 15 E I and Egerton MS 1500. These show how the Crusades continued to capture the imagination of western writers and artists. 

Heraclius brings back the true Cross to Jerusalem, with full borders incorporating the royal arms of England surmounted by a crowned helm and encircled by the Garter; a banner with the royal arms of England and a badge of the rose-en-soleil with the Yorkist motto 'Dieu et mon droit', from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 16r

Royal 15 E I, from which the preceding images are taken, contains over 50 miniatures, illustrating the Histoire d’Outremer. Outremer was the name given to the Holy Land and the Crusader states established there. It is a French version of the 12th-century Latin chronicle of William of Tyre (c. 1130–1186), who was born into a Crusader family in Jerusalem, educated in Europe and later became Archbishop of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon.

A monk, perhaps Peter Bartholemew, handing over the spear used to pierce Christ's side, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 98v

The Loss of the True Cross, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 433v

This manuscript is believed to have been made for King Edward IV of England in Bruges in 1479–80. It illustrates key events in the narrative. These include Pope Urban II preaching in 1095, which was credited with inspiring the First Crusade; the discovery of the relic of the Holy Lance; and even the fictional depiction of the loss of the True Cross in a battle against Saladin’s armies.


Almanac page for the 2nd half of the 11th century, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 44v

While William of Tyre's text and its translations exist in various copies, Egerton MS 1500 is unique in the British Library collections. It contains the Abreviamen de las Estorias in old Occitan or Provençal (the medieval dialect of southern France), and was copied in Avignon between 1321 and 1324. Each page consists of synchronic tables with images of emperors, kings, dukes and popes. The page above, covering the period of the First Crusade, includes the Emperors Michael Bringas and Isaac Comnenos who ruled from 1056 to 1059, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1057–1084), King Philip I of France (r. 1052–1108) and Duke Vitale Faliero of Venice. The King of England is ‘Hernold Nepos’ (King Harold, killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066), followed by ‘Guillelmus I’ (William the Conqueror), and his sons William II and Henry I (r. 1100–1135). On the right under the rubric Pasazia et auxilia terre sancta is an image of Peter the Hermit, who was credited with leading thousands of mostly paupers on the ‘Peoples’ Crusade’ at the end of the 11th century.

'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Folios 45v–53v contain an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted between the tables. Each paragraph of the text is accompanied by an image of Crusader knights on horseback, mostly led by churchmen. There is a plan of the walled city of Antioch, with the royal line of the Crusader King Baldwin beside it.

Map of Antioch from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 47v

The account of the Crusades ends with a description of the reigns of Godfrey, who was styled protector of the Holy Sepulchre, and Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and a map of the Holy City. On the following page the almanac continues, including the rulers of the Crusader states, Roger and Tancred.


‘Explicato[n]es de Regib[us] Jer[usa]l[e]m’  and a plan of Jerusalem, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, ff. 48v, 49r

Later depictions of the Crusades are already online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. These include a copy of Jean de Vignay's Merveilles de la terre d'outremer, made in Paris between 1333 and c. 1340 (Royal MS 19 D I), and a copy of Chroniques abrégées des Anciens Rois et Ducs de Bourgogne, made in Bruges around 1485–1490 (Yates Thompson MS 32).

Chantry Westwell

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26 March 2017

The medieval origins of Mothering Sunday

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Mothering Sunday falls every year on the 4th Sunday in Lent, also called Mid-Lent Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, referring to its sense of respite halfway through this season of fasting and penitence. The modern recognition of this day came about through the efforts of Constance Adelaide Smith (1878–1938), who worked as a dispenser of medicine in Nottingham, and drew directly on pre-modern traditions. She soon found that the medieval conception of motherhood and the celebration of it was both rugged and diverse.

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil (in the Taymouth Hours, c.1325–40)

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil, in the ‘Taymouth Hours’, c.1325–40: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 155v.

Smith had taken note of the Mother’s Day movement in the United States, promoted by Anna Jarvis and first proclaimed nationally in 1914, ‘as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country’, to be held on the 2nd Sunday in May. She was inspired by these efforts, but was not herself a mother, and argued for a deeper, more inclusive definition of mothers and mothering.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church (c.1075): Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church, c. 1075: Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

A short book appeared under the pseudonym ‘C. Penswick Smith’, The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1921 (revised 1932), as well as a sequel in 1928, with chapters exploring various facets of mothering: ‘The Church – Our Mother’; ‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’; ‘The Mother of Jesus’; and ‘Gifts of Mother Earth’. With these she collected a body of evidence for the traditions surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, which ranged from the practice of daughters visiting their mothers – especially important for those engaged as domestic servants away from home – to the gifts of simnel cakes or wafer cakes. Smith aimed to show that there was already an international tradition of honouring mothers of all types on the 4th Sunday in Lent, and this only needed to be strengthened through official recognition.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face (c.1240): Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face, c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

These various customs came from the medieval recognition of this day as ‘Laetare Sunday’. In the Middle Ages, many Sundays were referred to by their introit, or the first words of the Mass. On Mid-Lent Sunday, it also had a reference to mothering:

Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be satisfied from the breasts of your consolation.

Laetare Hierusalem et conuentum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis uestrae.

The readings for the day in the Sarum rite included Galatians 4.21–31, including the line ‘Jerusalem … is our mother’. The association of food with the day seems to be linked to John 6.1-14, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. On this Sunday, there was a relaxation of the rule against playing the organ. Simnel cake has been associated with the day for centuries, though its exact origins are foggy: ‘simnel’ is derived from Anglo-Norman simenel, ‘fine wheat flour’, itself apparently derived from the Classical Latin simila, a wheat flour. (The word was borrowed again from Anglo-Norman into medieval Latin as simenellus.)

Multitasking mum in the Cité des Dames of Christine de Pizan (1475): Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

Fredegund addressing her troops in a Dutch translation of Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

A custom developed during the Middle Ages of making a procession to one’s ‘mother church’ on this day, usually the local cathedral. This could sometimes get out of hand, as Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253), the bishop of Lincoln, warned against in his Letter 22.7: ‘In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death’ (Letters of Robert Grosseteste, trans. by Manello and Goering, p. 107).

Mothers were honoured in many other different ways. Abbots’ mothers are included in the list of queens and abbesses in the New Minster Liber uitae (Stowe MS 944, f. 26v). One Wulfwyn was the mother of the monk Ælfwine, who became abbot in 1031 or 1032; he also noted her death in his prayer book (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII). Margaret of Antioch was often considered the patron saint of pregnant women, escaping unscathed from no less than the bowels of a dragon, according to legend.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon, often considered the patron saint of pregnant women (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Mothering in the Middle Ages was multifaceted, complex and difficult — rather like today. Intellectuals compared it to the very work of God. Around 1395, Julian of Norwich famously compared God to a mother. Robert of Cricklade could uncontroversially write around 1238, ‘Do you seek the presence of a mother? Just as a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort you, says the Lord [Is. 66:13]’ (On the Marriage of the Prophet Jacob 1.20: Royal MS 8 E II, f. 22v). We can all agree: mothering is pretty awesome, and deserves to be celebrated.

Andrew Dunning

24 March 2017

Digitising our manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England

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Strong is he who tastes the power of books;
he who has possession of them is always the wiser.

Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.

— Solomon and Saturn II, lines 238–246 (translated in J. Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 198).

The British Library holds the world’s largest collections of books made or owned in England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books trace the development of writing, society, economy, government and religion from the 7th to the 11th centuries. We are delighted to announce that 175 of these manuscripts can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. We’ve produced a complete list of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available as of March 2017.

Many of these manuscripts have been digitised in the last year in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders.

Detail of canon tables, from the Royal Bible: England (Canterbury?), early 9th century, Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 4r

The manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts certainly corroborate the Old English poet’s claim that ‘books are glorious’. They range from mesmerising illuminated Insular Gospel-books to four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to fragments of scribbled farming memoranda. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in England before 1066. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa

End of Gospel excerpts and beginning of a prayer of Gregory the Great, with an illuminated initial, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

Don’t panic if your favourite manuscript is not yet on the list. More are being digitised all the time, including under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Depiction of Mambres with a book: from a miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

You can stay in touch with our progress by reading this blog or by checking our regular Twitter updates.

Alison Hudson

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