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Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

23 June 2018

The European conquest of the Canary Islands

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Europe and the Sea, a new exhibition in Berlin, explores the fundamental role played by the sea in the history and development of Europe. On loan to the exhibition is a British Library manuscript describing an expedition by two French knights, Gadifer La Sale and Jean de Béthencourt, to conquer the Canary Islands in 1402. It contains the Conquête et les conquérants des Iles Canaries, a chronicle of the journey and exploration of the islands, as recorded by Pierre Boutier and Jehan le Verrier, military chaplains to the expedition. There are several surviving accounts, but Egerton MS 2709, dated to before 1420, is believed to be closest to the events, and may have been copied under the supervision of Gadifer himself for an important patron, perhaps the Duke of Burgundy.

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Account of the arrival at La Goumera island, from the Conquête et les Conquérants des Iles Canaries, Paris, c. 1405 (after 1404 and before 1420): Egerton MS 2709, f. 19r

This chronicle describes several clashes with the local inhabitants. On the page shown above, Gadifer sailed around the islands and passed the ‘isle d’Enfer’ (meaning ‘Hell Island’, now called El Hierro), arriving at the ‘isle de la Goumere’ (La Goumera) at night. There the French sailors went ashore in a small boat and captured a man and three women who were making fires on the beach, bringing them back to the ship. The next morning they sent a party to find fresh water and, unsurprisingly, the local people attacked them and forced them to retreat.

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Description of El Hierro Island: Egerton MS 2709, f. 19v

On the next page the adventurers set sail for Palma, but were driven ‘by a great storm’ back to El Hierro, where they stayed for three weeks. They discovered ‘great numbers of pigs, goats and sheep’ and, while the coast was rather barren, the interior was ‘fertile and pleasant’ with ‘more than a hundred thousand pine trees’ and an abundance of quails. By 1405, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro had been conquered, although the larger islands like Tenerife put up greater resistance.

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Knights sailing to conquer the Canaries, attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop: Egerton MS 2709, f. 2r

On the first page of the manuscript is a striking image of a ship crowded with armed knights, with an elaborate initial and decorative border. The ship, which has been compared to a late Viking vessel in design, has flags at the masthead and at the prow and stern, as well as two shields bearing the arms of Gadifer La Sale, one of the French commanders. The arms of Jean de Béthencourt do not appear, but the arms on one of the flags at the stern have been partially erased, so it is possible that they were his. The illumination has been attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames, who worked on some of the most beautiful manuscripts in the British Library's collections, including the Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), a copy of the Bible Historiale made for Charles de Valois (1446–1472), duke of Normandy, now in two volumes (Add MSS 18856 and 18857), a collection of works by Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431) and Giovanni Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes (Royal MS 20 C IV).

The exhibition, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin from 13 June 2018 to 6 January 2019, views Europe as a maritime continent, showing the sea's fundamental role as a route of conquest, a resource, and a place of imagination and memory for Europeans through the ages.

 

Chantry Westwell

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21 June 2018

A midsummer milestone

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To mark midsummer, that most magical of days, we have another exciting update from The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. In a ground-breaking collaboration, the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have now digitised and published online 600 out of the selected 800 manuscripts. The remaining 200 manuscripts will be made available later this year. To get an idea of the range of manuscripts included so far, we have compiled a list (available in PDF and Excel formats) containing shelfmarks and titles, along with links to view the manuscripts in either Digitised Manuscripts at the BL or Archives et manuscrits at the BnF.

PDF format: Download BL_BnF_600_PolonskyPre1200Project_MSS

Excel format: Download BL_BnF_600_Project_MSS

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St Benedict and monks, in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

 

Coming soon:

Our project explores five hundred years of intellectual activity and manuscript production in both France and England. As we move rapidly towards the grand finale in November, here’s a brief recap of what is still to come. In November we launch:

A new joint project viewer to all 800 manuscripts: The project manuscripts will be presented in a new Mirador based viewer being developed by the BnF. The images will be presented in an internationally agreed standard format known as IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework-format). This means that it will be easier to view and share images from different collections. In the new viewer, you will be able to view multiple manuscripts from either library side by side and therefore virtually unite manuscripts from the collections of the two libraries. You will also be able to download an individual image or a pdf of an entire manuscript. 

A new interpretative website, Medieval England and France, 700-1200: We are also developing a new website, hosted by the British Library, which will feature articles and short films about the manuscripts. These will focus on a wide range of themes, such as history, medicine, music and art. We’ll include interviews with leading experts and several short clips on the various stages of illumination, commissioned from a modern artist and calligrapher. This website will be a virtual exhibition area to explore a selection of our collections, and everything will be presented in both English and French.

Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art from England and France 700-1200: In addition, we are preparing a book that will present some of the most impressive illuminated manuscripts in the project, illustrated with over 70 full-page colour illustrations. In Medieval Illumination we will alternate between manuscripts made in England and in France in order to present the similarities and differences between the art produced in each country. This book too will be translated and published in French. Both versions will be available by the opening of the Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition on 19 October (see below), as a number of project manuscripts will be featured in both the book and the exhibition.

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Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: BnF MS latin 11685, f. 5v

 

Other Upcoming Events:

International Medieval Congress 2018, 2–5 July, Leeds: We will be presenting a live update of the project at the Leeds IMC 2018. On Tuesday, 3 July, members of the project teams from both libraries (Laura Albiero, Cristian Ispir and Francesco Siri) will present new research on selected project manuscripts (session 638 at 11:15am). In the evening round table session (with Tuija Ainonen, Alison Ray and Francesco Siri) we will discuss the project itself, the work we do and the different resources we are in the process of creating. This will also be a great opportunity to ask questions or offer comments on this historical collaborative venture (session 938 at 7pm).

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Our readers will also have an opportunity to view some of the original manuscripts in person as a number of them will feature in the upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The exhibition will be open from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019 in the PACCAR gallery at the British Library (tickets are available here).

France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 conference: We’ll also be holding a three-day conference in Paris to celebrate the project launch, and to present more new research on manuscripts included in the project. Mark your calendars for 21–23 November 2018 in Paris at the Auditorium Colbert (2 Rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris). Free but mandatory registration will be available here.

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The entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper: Arundel MS 157, f. 8v

 

Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference, London: To coincide with the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on 13–14 December 2018, the Library is holding a two-day international conference with papers by leading scholars in the fields of history, literature and art history. This will be followed by a one-day symposium for early career researchers on 15 December 2018. Several of the manuscripts digitised as part of the project will be featured in the conference and symposium papers. Delegates are invited to a reception and private view of the exhibition on 13 December. Registration is available here.

Blogs: We will be continuing to blog about interesting manuscripts in the project on both the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, and on ManuscriptaFor inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200).

 

The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

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19 June 2018

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

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The reign of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) was a high point in the cultural history of Bulgaria, and the Tsar’s personalised copy of the Gospels translated into the Slavonic language is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. In 2017, the book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. As part of the celebration of Bulgarian National Day of Culture on 24 May, the manuscript was also featured on Bulgarian television. The Gospel-book has been fully digitised, and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander, his wife and two sons, all blessed by God: Add MS 39627, f. 3r

The makers of this book, who probably worked at the Tsar’s capital, Turnovo, drew on the long tradition of Byzantine book production and more recent Slavonic practices. They also conceived it as part of the Tsar’s revival and championing of Christian culture in the Balkans as the power of the Byzantine emperor ebbed and that of the Ottoman Turks grew.

In the words of its scribe Simeon, the volume was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. It now retains an extraordinary 367 ‘life-giving images of the Lord and his glorious disciple Jesus’. Once also richly decorated on the outside, bound within silver-gilt boards, the manuscript was probably displayed during services on major feast days attended by the Tsar and his family and intended to commemorate them in perpetuity after their deaths.

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The Tsar’s three daughters and son-in-law: Add MS 39627, f. 2v

At the opening of the volume, an imposing double-page portrait contrived in the tradition of Byzantine imperial portraits reflects both the artistic heritage of its creator and the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. In this image Tsar Ivan Alexander and his family together receive God's blessing. The Tsar is depicted dressed in imperial regalia and accompanied by his second wife, Theodora, a converted Jew, and by their two sons Ivan Shisman (r. 1371–1395) and Ivan Asen (d. 1388?). On the left-hand page are the Tsar’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, Kera Thamara, stands beside her husband, Despot Konstantin.

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Christ ascends to Heaven above his disciples and Mary; Tsar Ivan Alexander receives the blessing of St Mark, all at the end of St Mark’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 134v

Ivan Alexander is also shown in the company of each of the Evangelists at the end of their Gospels and between Abraham and the Virgin Mary in a large illustration of the Last Judgment prompted by St Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy to his disciples. These portraits promote the full integration of the secular and religious roles of the Tsar.

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Christ on the Cross before and after his death, mocked by the crowd (below) and bleeding from the lance wound, with the dead raised from their graves by the ensuing earthquake (above), in St Matthew’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 84r

The biblical text of the volume is equally lavishly decorated. Within the text several hundred illuminated miniatures illustrate the life and teachings of Christ in the sequence narrated by each of the Evangelists, focusing on his infancy, miracles, parables and Passion. Given the fourfold narrative of the Gospels and the profuse illuminations in the volume, many episodes common to more than one of the Gospels are illustrated several times. Most of these scenes are contained within one relatively shallow, horizontal strip, but some are extended to two or three such strips stacked vertically up the page or restricted to a smaller box within the text block.

None of these choices were the original idea of the makers of the Tsar’s book. They were instead based on the illuminations of an equally extraordinary Byzantine manuscript (untraced). In their frieze format and choice of subjects the miniatures correspond most closely to a remarkable 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels now in Paris that was produced at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and possibly made for the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–1059) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS grec 74). Only one other contemporary Byzantine Gospels, now in the Laurenziana Library at Florence, presents a similarly extended sequence of nearly three hundred frieze miniatures (Florence, Bibioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 6.23).

The individual portraits of the Tsar in his volume replace those of an abbot in the Studios Gospels; the opening family portrait may have been modelled on a now-lost imperial family portrait at the opening of the Byzantine manuscript from which it drew its other illustrations. Later Slavonic manuscripts of the Gospels that incorporate similar portraits and frieze miniatures reflect continued respect for this type of Gospels into the 17th century.

 

Further Reading

Bogdan D. Filov, Miniaturite na Londonskoto Evangelie na Tsar Ivan Aleksandra / Les miniatures de l'évangile du roi Jean Alexandre à Londres (Sofia, 1934).

Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, 1994).

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2004), no. 27.

Cynthia Vakareliyska, ed., The Curzon Gospel, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 35.  

The manuscript has also been reproduced in a new facsimile edition.

 

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