THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

157 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

28 February 2017

Pancake Tuesday

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Today is Pancake Tuesday, when many cooks whip up pancakes in every size, shape and flavour! This popular tradition coincides with Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter, and during the Middle Ages this time was observed by fasting. As the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday was marked by families indulging in foods forbidden over the fasting period, including meat, fats, eggs and milk. These were also foodstuffs that would not remain fresh over the 40-day fasting period, so it was necessary for households to use up these ingredients.

One common dish that combined fats, milk and eggs, with an addition of flour, was the pancake. Did you know that the British Library holds a 13th-century recipe for pancakes from an English collection of culinary recipes (now Additional MS 32085)?

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Detail of a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

This recipe for white crepes or pancakes is composed in Anglo-Norman French, and it is similar to modern pancake recipes.

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Nice day for a white pancake: recipe for ‘blanche escrepes’, from Add MS 32085, f. 117v

Here is a translation so you can judge for yourself:

2. White pancakes. Here is another dish, which is called white pancakes. Take best white flour and egg white and make batter, not too thick, and put in some wine; then take a bowl and make a hole in it; and then take butter, or oil, or grease; then put your four fingers in the batter to stir it; take the batter and put it in the bowl and pour it through the hole into the (hot) grease; make one pancake and then another, putting your finger in the opening of the bowl; then sprinkle the pancakes with sugar, and serve with the ‘oranges’.

(translation taken from Constance B. Hieatt & Robin F. Jones, 'Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii', Speculum, vol. 61, issue 4 (Oct. 1986), 859-882)

Watch out, though, these ‘oranges’ actually refer to another recipe in the collection for pork meatballs made to resemble fruit. However you enjoy your pancakes, get them while they’re hot!

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Bas-de-page scene of Salome dancing on her hands before the feasting of Herod and Herodias from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 106v

Alison Ray

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25 February 2017

The Art and History of Calligraphy

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On Thursday, 2 March (19.00–20.30), professional calligrapher Patricia Lovett will be giving a talk at the British Library, entitled 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'. Patricia will be drawing from the Library’s rich collections of manuscripts to tell us about the art and history of calligraphy from her own practitioner’s perspective. Not only will her talk be accessible for a lay audience, but it will also offer insights that should interest experienced book historians. Patricia is able to identify in manuscripts aspects of the historical processes of writing that may not be obvious to academic audiences, such as when the quill was refilled, when it needed to be cut, how it was cut, and the relationship of the lettering to illumination.

Prudentia

Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her, from Laurent d’Orleans, La somme le roi, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

In her talk, Patricia Lovett will be showing some of the most extraordinary examples of historical scripts found in British Library manuscripts. She will illustrate how, from Roman times until the present day, different writing styles and materials have changed the ways in which letters were formed, and how this resulted in a range of scripts that men and women used to express their ideas and beliefs. (Her talk features the earliest example of a British woman’s handwriting!) Patricia will explain how the scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, writing around the year 700 at the monastery of Lindisfarne, created his beautifully decorated Insular script; how the approximately 20 scribes of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, working in 9th-century Tours, executed the then recently-developed Caroline minuscule; how scribes in subsequent centuries developed the much more narrow and angular Gothic script in some of the most sumptuous late medieval manuscripts (such as the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Hours); and how changes in writing style in Renaissance Italy resulted in the so-called humanistic script.

Lindisfarne   Bedford

The Evangelist Matthew writing his Gospel, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, the Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 25v (left). St Jerome writing the Vulgate, France, c. 1410 – 1430, Add MS 18850, the Bedford Hours, f. 24r (right).

You also get a chance to see Patricia at work: after her talk she will be signing copies of her new British Library book calligraphically!

 

Patricia Lovett, 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'

The British Library

Thursday, 2 March 2017, 19:00–20:30

 

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23 February 2017

Old English 'Spell' Books

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In the list of books bequeathed by Bishop Leofric of Exeter (d. 1072) to his cathedral, one entry might, at first glance, take a modern reader by surprise: a ‘ful spelboc’, or a full spell book.  This is not, however, evidence that the learned bishop was dabbling in magic. In Old English, spell just meant ‘saying’ or ‘speech’.

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Different sorts of ‘spells’: miniature of Cuthbert preaching from a copy of Bede's Prose Life of Cuthbert. England (Durham), c. 1175–1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 22v

The term ‘spell’ had a range of meanings in Old English. As a noun, it could mean story, discourse or message. For example, it was applied to the tale told about Beowulf, a story (spel) crafted skilfully by a ‘boast-laden man, mindful of songs’. Old English writers also used spell to refer to learned discourses or works of history. Spell could also mean news or message, as in the English translation of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion): ‘gospel’, or ‘good spell’. As a verb, it meant ‘to talk’ or ‘to converse’. (Ironically, the modern English verb ‘to spell’ actually comes from the French épeler, although that also has a proto-Germanic root.) 'Spells' only seem to have become associated with magic much later: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first recorded use of ‘spell’ to mean magical incantation was in 1579, in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. In Old English, terms like galdor or seiðr seem to have been used for incantations and charms, in some contexts. In the case of Leofric’s spell book, then, ‘spell’ probably referred to speeches or sermons in Old English, intended to instruct listeners about Biblical and church history and to inspire them to think about their own lives.

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The word ‘spel’ from Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 152r

Although some items on Leofric’s list have been identified with manuscripts which survive to this day (including a collectar and a book of riddles and poetry), scholars have yet to agree on whether any surviving books of Old English sermons are Leofric’s ‘ful spelboc’. The British Library does, however, possess a few sermons which were copied at Leofric’s Exeter, in the opening folios of Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII. These include sermons for different times of year, like the second Sunday after Easter, sermons for special occasions, like the dedication of a church, and other sermons that could have been used at any time. It ends with a promise a king was supposed to make at his consecration, to uphold justice and protect his people. These folios are now followed by a life of St Dunstan and a later history.

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Sermon on the beginning of creation, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 13r

In addition to the sermons in Cotton Cleopatra B XIII, the British Library has many other Old English ‘spellbooks’, including some of the earliest known copies of Ælfric’s sermons and books of Old English sermons produced several decades after the Norman Conquest, showing the continuing use of Old English (such as Cotton MS Faustina A IX).

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‘Understand that the Devil has led this nation astray for many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men!’
Copy of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English with Wulfstan’s own annotations, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Reading these Old English sermons, one can see how they fit the many meanings of ‘spell’, in Old and Modern English. They often include retellings of exciting stories: contrary to the modern stereotype about sermons being boring, these Old English sermons feature cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing monks, miraculous animals, and more. These sermons were also supposed to act like modern magical spells, in the sense that they were intended to change the speakers’ world by persuading listeners to alter or stop their behaviours: see the bombastic ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’, written by Archbishop Wulfstan of Worcester-York during the Second Viking Age. These speakers and their spells knew the power of words, even without any magical force behind them.

So if you use words in any form today, remember: you are casting spells, in the oldest sense of the word. Use them well!

 

Alison Hudson

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21 February 2017

Medieval Shelfies

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Our colleagues in the British Library's publishing team (otherwise known as @bl_publishing) recently spent a day managing the Library's Twitter account. Throughout the day, they encouraged followers to send in their shelfies, i.e. selfies of their bookcases. Sharing shelfies has recently become a popular social media trend among bibliophiles and literature enthusiasts. However, the appreciation of the aesthetic value of books and bookcases is not just a modern day phenomenon. Medieval manuscripts contain many images which depict books being stored in various styles of bookcases and shelves. Certain physical features of manuscripts themselves can also suggest how books were stored to be both visually attractive and accessible for the reader. 

Additional 20698   f. 70
Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames ('De Lof der Vrouwen'), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

Most depictions of bookcases in medieval manuscripts can be found in images of scribes writing in a scriptorium. Within these images it is rare to see books stored with their spines facing outwards as is common today. There is evidence that books were stored in a number of different ways, such as stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. In the image below, the Dominican friar and author Vincent of Beauvais is pictured writing at his desk, surrounded by books stored with their covers on display (or easily covered by a green curtain). This method of storage may have been used for luxury books with lavish, embellished bindings. A previous post on our blog, discussing detached bindings in our collections, provides an idea of how decorative book covers could be.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book, from Le miroir historial (a French translation of his Speculum historiale, translated by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, 1479-1480. British Library, Royal 14 E I volume 1, f.3r

Alternatively, books could be placed flat or even stacked on top of each other, as in the famous image of the Old Testament scribe and priest, Ezra. Behind Ezra is a special kind of book-cupboard, in which the books were laid flat next to one another. This image is taken from the Codex Amiatinus, a complete copy of the Bible which dates to the early 8th century. This manuscript was written in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, on the north-eastern coast of modern-day England, and was intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Wearmouth-Jarrow was also home to the Venerable Bede, who would have been writing in the scriptorium at the same time as this manuscript was being produced. It is possible that the bookcase and writing desk in the image were inspired by those at the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century.

Ezra
The 'Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

These images do not show the titles of the books on display, unlike modern shelfies. For that sort of shelfie from the medieval period, there are booklists or inventories, which record the books held at a particular library or institution. These lists are extremely useful for scholars trying to reconstruct the contents of ancient and medieval libraries which have been separated or lost over time. By understanding the contents of medieval libraries, it is also possible to identify specific texts which influenced the work of medieval authors.

Harley 50   f. 48v
List of books from the Augustinian priory of St Mary, Bridlington, Yorkshire. The list is headed ‘Books of the big book-cupboard’ ('Libri magni armarii'). Rubrics separate lists of books by Ambrose, Hugh of Saint-Victor and Anselm, while others are grouped as glossed books or small books (the latter perhaps on shallower shelves). From a glossed copy of St Mark's Gospel, Northern England, c. 1150-1200. British Library, Harley MS 50, f. 48v

Booklists also provide an insight into the interests of individual patrons of books and libraries. For example, the booklist below was copied into a 10th-century manuscript and records the collection of an otherwise unknown Æthelstan. The contents of this list suggest that he was interested in works of grammar and rhetoric.

Cotton MS Domitian A I f.55v
List of Æthelstan’s books, England, c. 940-980. British Library Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.55v.

The physical appearance of manuscripts can also suggest how they were stored, and what medieval bookcases might have looked like. In a previous post, we discussed an unusual 12th-century manuscript which still retains the fur of the animal skin used for its binding. The binding also features small metal roundels and some metal bosses which protrude from the cover. These metal roundels may have been added to protect the books and provide support when they were stored in bookcases.

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Detail of the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Meanwhile, this 9th-century Gospel-book provides a clue that it may have been stored with its fore-edges facing out.  While the titles of modern books are written on books' spines, because we usually store books with spines facing out, the title of this book is written on the edges of the pages.

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Detail of the title added to the fore-edge of a Gospel-book containing the Gospels of St Luke and St John, Corvey?, c. 875-900. British Library Egerton MS 768

An item in the British Library's collection of papyri also helps our understanding of the appearance of ancient libraries. Below is a small papyrus label which dates to the 2nd century, and was attached to a papyrus containing the words of Baccylides, a Greek lyric poet. These labels would have been attached to papyrus scrolls in order to make specific texts easier to find within larger collections.

Papyrus 2056
A 2nd-century papyrus fragment of Bacchylides retains its parchment label, used to identify the volume on a bookshelf. British Library Papyrus 2056

The word 'shelfie' is a portmanteau combining the words shelf and selfie. A previous post on medieval selfies demonstrated that self-portraiture was popular long before the rise of front facing cameras and selfie sticks. Shelfies, too, clearly have a history that is older than the creation of the Twitter hashtag!

Becky Lawton

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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

C11665-05
The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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14 February 2017

Love Me Do: Medieval Love Spells

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Valentine’s Day is all about love — mutual love and shared love. But what if love is unrequited or one-sided? The problem, as always, is not a new one. It was well known in ancient and medieval times alike, but different people had their own ways of dealing with it.

Some people simply believed in persuasion. Some nice words on a bench may break the ice and turn the lover’s heart in the desired direction. 'You can try this with men or women alike', as the caption of the image says.

Sloane 4016   f. 44v

Detail from a herbal, Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane 4016, f. 44v

If this does not make a break-through, a picnic set up in an entertaining landscape of flowers, trees and a little brook might bring better results.

Harley 4431   f. 145
Miniature of the duke of true love and his companions entertaining ladies, from the Book of the Queen, c. 1410–1414, France (Paris), Harley 4431, f. 145

You could even include some sport in these outdoor activities and win their hearts in a race. This is how Hippomenes won over Atalanta after beating her in an (actually unfair) running competition. He rolled golden apples in the girl’s way, slowing her down so that he could finally win and get her hand.

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Miniature of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, from Harley 4431, f. 128r

Others had completely different methods and, convinced about the power of their poetry and music, bravely revealed their feelings before their lovers. Orpheus did it in a live performance for Eurydice. It worked, melting the heart of Death himself who gave his dead wife back to him.

Harley 4431   f. 126v
Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v  

Others, probably less skilled in performing arts, preferred to do this in a less direct way and offered luxury editions of their poetry to their loved ones — enclosing their own burning hearts in the volumes.

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Detail from 49 Love Sonnets, Italy (Milan?), c. 1425–1475, King's 322, f. 1r

There were some, however, who did not deter even from violence and took what they wanted by force. They fought wars, battled kings and occupied cities, just like Menelaus did when his beloved Helena escaped from Sparta, starting the ten-year long Trojan War. The British Library does not endorse this approach! 

Royal 19 C I   f. 204
Detail from a series of miniatures on the temptations of lovers, from Breviari d'Amour, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300-1325, Royal 19 C I, f. 204r

Sometimes, when the above methods have all proven useless, there was one final risky and dangerous method that only a few have ever tried: magic. The British Library houses an excellent collection of ancient love spells and charms from the first three centuries CE. Papyrus 121 (2), one of the largest extant scrolls in the collection, preserves a whole series of uncanny methods of gaining someone’s heart. Column 12 of this extraordinary papyrus, for example, has a special recipe that proved useful enough to be recorded and come down to us in the 21st century. It reads as follows:

Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of a demon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a hot bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words 'attract to me XY, whom XY bore, on this very day from this very hour, with a soul and a heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately.' The picture should be as depicted below.

Papyrus 121
Detail of a love spell, from a collection of magical spells and charms, Egypt, 3rd century, Papyrus 121 (2)

Unfortunately the image to be used in the process was not copied in the papyrus, but other parts of the same document preserve similar images of demons with names written around them that can help us imagine what is needed here.

Papyrus 121 a

Papyrus 121 b

There is also a special charm to be used in the process that is supposed to guarantee its success but we decided not to replicate it here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Peter Toth

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12 February 2017

It's Caption Competition Time

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We recently announced the complete digitisation of an idiosyncratic, Middle Dutch natural encyclopedia and bestiary (that's a phrase we don't use very often). Given the range of vivid expressions and charming details in the images in this manuscript, we could not resist using it for one of our semi-regular caption competitions. So, put your thinking caps on: what might the two fellows pictured below be up to? Let us know in the comment section or on Twitter! We'll tweet and publish your best (and, occasionally, worst) suggestions!

Add MS 11390 caption

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10 February 2017

The Flower of Nature

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The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site has recently acquired some new residents, including unicorns, amorous elephants, humans and dragons. These can all be found in the recently digitised Der naturen bloeme or The Flower of Nature (Add MS 11390), a natural encyclopedia and bestiary in Middle Dutch verse.

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Add MS 11390, f. 22r

The manuscript is one of only eleven extant copies and contains 571 fantastic illustrations of the humans, quadrupeds, birds, sea creatures, fish, poisonous snakes, insects and crawling animals, common trees, spice trees and medicinal herbs. The text also discusses wells, gemstones and metals.

Add MS 11390 stags
Add MS 11390
, f. 23r

Be warned, however: this bestiary is not rated PG!

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Add MS 11390, f. 13r

The text of Der naturen bloeme was written around 1270 by the Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant (b. c. 1200, d. c. 1272) at the request of his patron, the somewhat appropriately-named Nicolaas van Cats. The British Library’s copy was probably made in the first quarter of the 14th century.

Add MS 11390 elephants
Add MS 11390, f. 13v

In addition to its fantastic drawings, it also provides rare evidence of a medieval lending library. An oath, written on the last page, states that its borrower swears on the cross drawn next to the text that he or she will return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by a woman, in a 14th- or 15th-century hand, who identifies herself as 'abstetrix heifmoeder' ('obstetrix’ meaning midwife).

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Detail of an oath, Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Clarck Drieshen

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