THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

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

BnF logo from BnF website

Supported by

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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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16 June 2018

Cotton manuscripts quiz

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Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!

The answers are now given below (no peeking!).

1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?

Cotton

2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?

3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?

4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

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5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)

6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?

7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?

8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.

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9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?

10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?

 

***

Here are the answers:

 

The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)

Sir Edward Dering (Cotton Charter XIII 31A, sent to Cotton in June 1630) and Humphrey Wyems of the Middle Temple (Cotton MS Augustus II 106, presented to him on New Year's Day 1629)

King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)

Nero (they are named Cotton MS Nero A X/2 and Cotton Nero MS D IV respectively)

Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')

Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford

Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)

King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)

Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)

Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)

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