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329 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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?

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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?

 

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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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12 June 2018

The Serres Gospels goes online

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In this spectacular portrait, Jacob, bishop of Serres (b. 1300, d. 1365), humbly presents his Gospel-book to Christ. He is shown at the end of a copy of the Four Gospels in Old Church Slavonic, known as the Serres Gospels. This book is now completely digitised, and is available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Portrait of Jacob of Serres: Add MS 39626, f. 292v

Jacob lived in turbulent times. He rose to prominence through the patronage of Stefan Dušan, who became king of Serbia in 1331 and thereafter expanded his territories. Dušan initially appointed Jacob as the first abbot of his newly-built monastery of the Holy Archangels near Prizren, which eventually became Dušan’s burial place. He then promoted Jacob to the position of bishop of Serres after conquering the city in 1345.

Perhaps acknowledging the exceptional circumstances that led to its creation, the Serres Gospels contains a lengthy inscription explaining that it was made for Jacob at the Metropolitan Church of St Theodore in Serres, in 1354, in the time of Tsar Stefan Dušan, his wife Helena, their son Kral Uros, and the Patriarch Joanikije (who died on 3 September 1354, providing the latest possible date for the manuscript). At the end of the inscription, the scribe signed his name in the shape of a cross as Kallist Rasoder. Rasoder is an epithet referring to ragged clothes, suggesting Kallist’s commitment to a life of humble austerity.

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End of the colophon with the scribe's signature: Add MS 39626, f. 293v

In contrast to its austere scribe, the Serres Gospels is gloriously lavish. Throughout the manuscript, headings, initial letters and punctuation marks are written in gold, and each of the four books of the Gospels begins with a panel of ornament (a headpiece) painted in gold and rich colours.

Most impressive of all is the manuscript’s only full-page picture, the portrait of Jacob making his donation (pictured above). Unusually, it was made by gilding the entire surface within the frame, and then painting over the top of the gold. Where the paint has worn away, you can see the gold shining through underneath. This difficult and expensive technique makes the picture brilliantly luminous.

Jacob is depicted in his clerical robes standing in a supplicant posture with his bejewelled manuscript before him — a self-reference to the Serres Gospels. The inscription beside him supplies his speech: ‘This tetraevangelion (Gospel-book) I am offering to Thee, Christ, my Lord’. Jacob’s face is delicately painted and expressive, and he gazes imploringly at the viewer with deep blue eyes. In the top right, Christ emerges from the heavens to receive his gift.

The inscription in the roundel above contains a poetic prayer from the vespers service of the Sunday before the Great Lent: ‘While the Judge is sitting and angels standing before [Him], while the trumpet is sounding and the flame is burning, what will you do, o my soul brought to judgement? Then thy evil deeds will be brought before [Him] and thy secret sins will be revealed. But before the end, beseech Christ the Lord: God make me pure and save me’.

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Opening to the Gospel of Matthew: Add MS 39626, f. 5r

Despite Stefan Dušan’s death in 1355, Jacob maintained his office as bishop of Serres until his own death in 1365. His manuscript continued to be treasured, and today survives as testament to the spiritual devotion and artistic magnificence of its age.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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08 June 2018

Registration now open for our ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference

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On 13–14 December 2018, the British Library will be hosting an international conference to coincide with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. Registration for the conference is now open.


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A calendar page for December, from a geographical and scientific collection made in England in the mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

The programme comprises twenty-two of the leading experts in the study of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. They were invited on the basis of their long-established study of these manuscripts, their senior professional standing and the high calibre of their contributions to the field. The speakers were selected, with the advice of the exhibition’s advisory group, to ensure that the conference covers the full time-period, geographical range and themes reflected in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The conference will open and close with keynote lectures by Professor Lawrence Nees of the University of Delaware and Professor Julia Crick of King’s College London.

Other confirmed speakers are Sue Brunning, Richard Gameson, Helen Gittos, Michael Gullick, David Johnson, Catherine Karkov, Simon Keynes, Rosalind Love, Rosamond McKitterick, Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Andy Orchard, Susan Rankin, Winfried Rudolf, Joanna Story, Francesca Tinti, Elaine Treharne, Immo Warntjes, Tessa Webber and Jonathan Wilcox. The conference will include an evening private view of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Opening page of the Gospel of St Mark featuring a border and an initial in gold and colours with animal head decorations, from the Bury Gospels, England (Canterbury?), c. 1020–1030: Harley MS 76, f. 45r

The conference will be followed on 15 December 2018 by a symposium in which early career researchers will discuss their new work on manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England. The speakers were selected following an open call for papers held last year.

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Patientia talking to other virtues, from the Psychomachia, England, early 11th century,
Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

As the Old English poem Maxims I urges, ‘Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan’ (‘Wise people ought to exchange learned speeches’). We hope you will be able to join us in December.  

Register for the International Conference only (13 and 14 December)

Register for the International Conference and Early Career Symposium (13, 14 and 15 December)

 

We are very grateful to the donors who are generously supporting the conference and symposium:

The Polonsky Foundation

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Patrick Donovan 

The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections

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Past & Present Postgraduate Fund

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A medieval rainbow

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June is Pride Month, an annual celebration around the world of the LGBTQ+ community. An important symbol of Pride is the rainbow pride flag, with the colours of the rainbow commonly representing diversity in gay, lesbian and trans culture. To honour Pride celebrations, we take a look here at rainbows in medieval manuscripts and the colours used by scribes and artists to make them.

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A drawing depicting the rainbow of Noah’s Covenant, from a roll copy of Peter of Poitier’s Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, 2nd half of the 13th-century: Royal MS 14 B IX, 2nd membrane

The conventional seven colours of the rainbow may be best remembered in Britain by the mnemonic ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’: R(ed), O(range), Y(ellow), G(reen), B(lue), I(ndigo), and V(iolet). Pigment colours used by scribes and illuminators were made from a variety of materials, including plants, minerals and animal sources. Ordinary dark writing ink was made from oak galls.

Many scribes prepared their own pigments, the colouring agent in paint. Pigments were made in a powder form, before being mixed with a binding medium such as glair (made with egg white), egg tempera (made with egg yolk), or gesso (a mixture containing gum).

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An artist mixing colours in an inhabited initial opening the entry for ‘Color’, from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, c. 1360–c. 1375: Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 329r

Red and orange pigments were made with natural minerals, including a form of lead that when heated produces a vibrant orangey-red known as minium. Minium was commonly used to outline illuminations, giving the pictures in manuscripts the name ‘miniatures’ (not because they were small). Minium was a cheaper pigment in cost, and was also used in medicine and cosmetics.

The most common yellow pigment was made from a highly toxic substance containing arsenic, known as orpiment. Orpiment reflected light, similar to gold, but reacted easily to other pigments on the page. Yellow could be also produced organically from plant and mineral sources, including the luxury spice saffron that was imported from Persia and parts of Europe. Ochre was a cheaper alternative to saffron, and could be locally sourced in Bury St Edmunds, Oxford and the Forest of Dean.

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A colourful diagram relating to music, in De artibus ac disciplinis liberalium litterarum by Cassiodorus, 9th–10th century: Harley MS 2637, f. 41v. This manuscript has been recently digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Artists could find recipes for pigments in written works such as the De diversis artibus of Theophilus Presbyter (fl. c. 1070–1125). The British Library holds the most complete copy of this treatise, containing instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking. It includes recipes for ‘Salt green’ and ‘Spanish green’, types of verdigris, a green pigment produced through a chemical reaction with copper. Verdigris was very corrosive and was often mixed with saffron to last longer on the page.

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The opening of the recipe for Spanish green pigment, in De diversis artibus by Theophilus, late 12th or early 13th century: Harley MS 3915, f. 18v

Ultramarine blue was the most valuable pigment that artists could obtain, derived naturally from the mineral lapis lazuli. It was imported to Europe from Afghanistan and could cost as much as gold. Later medieval artists often used ultramarine blue for the robes of the Virgin Mary, saints and wealthy patrons to reflect their high status. A more affordable form of blue pigment known as citrimarine was manufactured from a copper compound called azurite. 

Deep blue or indigo was a plant-based pigment, likely obtained in Europe from the leaves of the woad plant. Indigo was used to complement gold leaf and used in night scenes in manuscript illuminations.

Violet or purple colours could be made from mixing red and blue pigments, or made from plants and lichens. One rich purple dye known as Tyrian purple was extremely valuable in the eastern Mediterranean, as it was extracted in tiny quantities from live sea snails, the mollusc murex brandaris. A precious pigment, Tyrian purple was used as a dye for the imperial robes of certain Roman emperors. The dye was also used to colour whole pages in high-status manuscripts.

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A rainbow appears at the birth of St Fremund, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, 1434-1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

Together all of these fantastic colours make the colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky and in illuminated manuscripts alike!

Alison Ray

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04 June 2018

The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

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One Thursday in June over 1300 years ago, a group of monks stood on the banks of the River Wear, weeping. In the distance, a boat was sailing away across the river. Over the water, the sound of the monks’ singing and sobs reached the elderly man in the boat, who was himself in tears. This was Ceolfrith, their abbot. He was leaving, never to return. Among the things he took with him was an enormous book, a gift he intended to deliver at his earthly destination. That book has never returned to the British Isles … until now.

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Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The dramatic description of Abbot Ceolfrith’s departure is set out in The Life of Ceolfrith, written shortly after those events by an anonymous author. Ceolfrith's departure also features in another contemporaneous work, the History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which was written by another of Ceolfrith’s monks: the Venerable Bede. Wearmouth and Jarrow were two sites of the same monastery. Together, they formed one of the major intellectual centres in Europe in the 8th century, and these works are key sources for the monastery’s early history. They also provide useful information about the production of that giant book Ceolfrith took with him, now known as Codex Amiatinus. Today, Codex Amiatinus is the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world. The manuscript that contains the earliest surviving copies of both the Anonymous Life of Ceolfrith and Bede’s History of the Abbots has recently been digitised, thanks to The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  

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Account of Ceolfrith's departure in the earliest copy of the Anonymous Vita Ceolfridi, made in England in the 10th century: Harley MS 3020, f. 29r 

According to Bede, Ceolfrith was the sort of ‘man who worked hard at everything’ (‘industrius per omnia vir’). Ceolfrith was particularly energetic at expanding the libraries at Jarrow and Wearmouth that his predecessor, Benedict Biscop, had set up. According to Bede, he doubled the size of those libraries. He also ordered that three giant Bibles be made, using the new Latin translation of the Bible (Jerome’s Vulgate translation). One of the Bibles was to go to Wearmouth, the other Jarrow and the third Ceolfrith took as a gift for St Peter’s shrine in Rome.

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Late 12th-century image of a scribe that may depict Bede, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r 

Both Bede and the anonymous author state that Ceolfrith decided to go on a final pilgrimage to Rome because he felt he was becoming too old to set a good example to his pupils. Both accounts claim this was something of a surprise to his monks: Bede claims they were only given two days’ notice. This seems dubious, given the elaborate preparations necessary for the journey, that included not only Ceolfrith but dozens of other travelling companions. Nevertheless, using both accounts, we can reconstruct some of his route. 

Reconstruction of Ceolfrith's journey, based on the Anonymous Life, Bede's History of the Abbots, later pilgrim itineraries and the analysis of Grocock, Wood and Morris and comparisons with Archbishop Sigeric's later itinerary; with the Nodegoat visualisation environment

‘Now Ceolfrith set out from his monastery on 4 June, a Thursday …’ according to the Anonymous Life. Ceolfrith sailed across the River Wear in a boat, then rode south on horseback:

he got out of the boat ... and got on a horse, speeding away from the land of the Angles to the lands where, with a freer and purer spirit for contemplating angels, he might be delivered to Heaven.

Sometime between 4 June and 4 July, the Anonymous Life claims that Ceolfrith was in ‘Ælberht’s monastery, at a place called Horn Vale’. Scholars have suggested that this place was Kirkdale, in Yorkshire. Ceolfrith then boarded a boat for the Continent at the mouth of the River Humber on 4 July. It was not smooth sailing: the boat was apparently blown off course three times. Nevertheless, on 12 August Ceolfrith ‘reached the lands of Gaul’ (Galliae terras), where he was received with honour by King Chilperic himself. The party then travelled over land: Bede claims Ceolfrith went part of the way on horseback and part of the way being carried on a litter, as he was becoming ill. Ceolfrith reached Langres around 9am on 25 September. He died there on 29 September 716.

Codex Amiatinus’s journey did not stop there. According to the Anonymous Life, a group of monks continued on and delivered Ceolfrith’s gift to the Pope. The Anonymous Life also preserves the Pope’s thank you letter to the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow, which mentions a fine gift he had received — probably Codex Amiatinus.

Codex Amiatinus dedication page
The dedication page of Codex Amiatinus as it now looks; the alterations use a brown ink, in contrast to the main text (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

In later centuries, Codex Amiatinus moved again, this time to the abbey of San Salvatore in Amiata, Tuscany. Peter the Lombard (fl. late 9th century) partially erased an inscription in the front the book, recording how it was a gift from Ceolfrith to St Peter’s, and replaced Ceolfrith’s name with his own. The altered inscription also records that he gave the book to the monastery at Amiata. However, later scholars have been able to prove this volume is the one that travelled with Ceolfrith, because a copy of its original dedicatory page is preserved in the Anonymous Life, and it matches the page in Codex Amiatinus, apart from the erasures.

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Copy of the dedication page of Codex Amiatinus, from the Anonymous Life of Ceolfrith: Harley MS 3020, f. 33r 

Codex Amiatinus is now preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. It will be returning for the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019). You can book your tickets to see this remarkable manuscript here.

Alison Hudson

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01 June 2018

A calendar page for June 2018

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June is busting out all over: it's time to prune back. An 11th-century calendar page for this month depicts a group of men chopping down branches. We are exploring this calendar every month this year: click here for the first post in the series.

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A calendar page for June, from a calendar made in southern England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

The illustration at the bottom of the page for June shows two men cutting down branches of some very curvy plants, while a man on the left loads a large log into a two-wheeled cart. A pair of oxen, wearing a yoke, enter from the right. This calendar is one of only two to survive from England before the Norman Conquest that are illustrated with ‘labours of the month’, scenes of agricultural work and recreation. The other calendar can be found in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. For the previous two months, these calendars were illustrated with very similar scenes, but in June they diverge: the Tiberius Calendar shows men with sickles harvesting plants, while men pruning branches appear above the calendar page for July. 

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Detail of men pruning plants and collecting wood, from a calendar page for June: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

The axes in the drawing in the Julius Calendar resemble 9th to 11th-century implements found in England, although some of these may have been used for warfare rather than farming. But this image may have had symbolic meaning, as much as being a representation of day-to-day life. Many of the tasks depicted in this calendar — from ploughing in the page for January, and shepherding in the page for May were used as metaphors in the Bible. Similarly, the Bible compares God to the owner of a vineyard who prunes or cuts down those plants and trees that do not bear fruit.

Elsewhere on the page, more specific information is included for each day of the month. This includes mathematical quantities and symbols used to calculate the days of the week and lunar cycles, listed in columns to the left of the date. Extra information also takes the form of a poem with a verse for each day.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f005v peter and paul
Detail of a gold cross next to a verse for the feast of St Peter and St Paul: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

An early user of the calendar marked out two days with gold crosses: the feast celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, on 24 June; and the feast of the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul, on 29 June. Both of these remained important feast days celebrated throughout Europe in the medieval period, particularly since the feast of St John the Baptist coincided with Midsummer’s Day, or the Summer Solstice. Under the current calendrical system the summer solstice usually falls around 21 June, but in medieval Europe Midsummer was celebrated on 24 June.

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Detail of a gold cross next to a verse for a feast of St John the Baptist: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

After the gold crosses, another layer of marginal information was added in the form of notes in red. They record events such as the vigil of the feast of St John the Baptist on 23 June (Midsummer’s Eve) and the summer solstice (Midsummer) on 24 June. We can tell that the red notes were added after the gold crosses because the word ‘solstitiu[m]’ is split in two to fit around the cross.

This calendar page also includes the zodiac sign associated with much of the month of June: Gemini, or the twins, apparently deep in conversation.

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Detail of a roundel depicting the constellation Gemini, associated in astrology with the month of June: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5v

It’s only five months until you will be able see this calendar in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. In the meantime, enjoy the month of June.

Alison Hudson 

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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