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15 posts categorized "Music"

06 June 2017

In an artistic league of its own

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No matter how long you’ve worked with medieval manuscripts, there's always one that completely surprises you. One manuscript that has astonished many scholars, and still inspires debate, is the combination of music, texts and images in the mid-11th-century portion of Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, known as the Caligula Troper or Cotton Troper. The Caligula Troper has been described as ‘completely unexpected in a mid-eleventh-century English context’ (T.A. Heslop, ‘Manuscript illumination at Worcester, c. 1055–1065’, in The Cambridge Illuminations: The Conference Papers ed. by Stella Panayotova (London: Harvey Miller, 2007), p. 69). Not only is it illustrated, which is unusual for surviving early English musical manuscripts, but the style of its illustrations is unparalleled elsewhere.

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St Martin identifying a devil trying to disguise himself as Christ, from the Caligula Troper, England (?Western England), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 29r

The Caligula Toper is so-called because it was housed in the section of Sir Robert Cotton's library named after the Roman emperor Caligula and it contains the text for tropes: that is, chants which would have been added to the mass on special days, like saints’ days or major holidays. The volume’s slim size — it fits in your palm — suggests it could have been used by a single person, such as a soloist. The text is accompanied by musical notation, called ‘neumes’. Although some neumes look like modern musical notes, they had a slightly different use and functioned more as an aide-mémoire for someone who already knew the tune.

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Tropes for Christmas, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

The Caligula Troper also contains illustrations of Biblical scenes and scenes from the lives of the saints mentioned in the text, ‘captioned’ by verses which run around the edges of the images.

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Miniature of Peter being released from prison, to accompany music from the feast of St Peter in Chains, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 22r

It is these illustrations that make the Caligula Troper so unusual. While the script and the musical notation seem to be English, the style of the illustrations is rather different from the artistic style which dominated de luxe English book productions during the late 10th and early 11th century. This style emphasized curved figures, round faces, and extremely fluttery drapery, as shown in the drawings below, which may have been made at about the same time as or shortly before the Troper.

Tib B V!1 and Titus D XXVII comparanda
Miniature of Orion, from Cicero's Aratea, Southern England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 39r; Miniature of the Crucifixion, from Ælfwine's Prayerbook, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

By contrast, the artist or artists of the Caligula Troper had a very geometric style, especially for the figures’ long faces, stylized hair-dos and triangular or diamond-shaped hemlines. The artist(s)’ use of bold colours, particularly red and yellow, is also striking, given that most surviving 11th-century English manuscripts favoured a range of colours or tinted line drawings. The artist(s) also used tonal modelling, or gradients of colour and shading, in a more decisive way than is found in other surviving English manuscripts.

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A group of virgins, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 36r

This contrast can be seen particularly in images like the Ascension or the naming of John the Baptist. There, the artist(s) of the Caligula Troper copied the cast of characters and even the gestures found in late 10th- and 11th-century English manucripts, but with a totally different effect due to the more angular features on the figures and the sharper gradient of colours.

Ascension 3 Ways
The Ascension, three ways: ‘Winchester-style’ painting from the Benedictional of St
Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 64; Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 18r; tinted line-drawing from the Tiberius Psalter, England (Winchester?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 15r

Naming of John the Baptist
The naming of John the Baptist, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v and a detail of the naming of John the Baptist, from Add MS 49598, f. 92v

Because of this unusual artistic style, no one knows for sure where it was made. This manuscript has been associated with various religious houses, including Hereford, Gloucester, and the Old Minster, Winchester. Its date is also debated. Even if we could establish where the Caligula Troper was made, that still does not explain where the artist or artists were inspired to create such distinctive artwork. Some scholars have suggested that they spent time in mainland Europe or had access to continental manuscripts brought by travelling bishops. Others have suggest that the artist(s) were trained at Canterbury, and may even have known Eadwig [Eadui] Basan, the prolific scribe of several gilded service books.

Wherever and by whomever the Caligula Troper was made, Elizabeth Teviotdale has shown that it was used into the 13th-century, possibly at Worcester. Although the 11th-century portion that survives is missing some of its pages, it was added to a 12th-century Troper and Proser by the 13th-century, when the same hand annotated it. By the 12th-century, some musical notations and styles had changed — notably, notation now included lines to help indicate pitches — but the beautiful and unusual 11th-century troper continued to be valued and possibly even used for centuries to come. Thanks to its recent digitisation by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, hopefully this distinctive manuscript can continue to intrigue and surprise viewers for many, many years to come. 

Chaque manuscrit est singulier, mais on trouve parfois des manuscrits vraiment sans pareil. Ainsi, le ‘Caligula Troper’ est le seul manuscrit anglais du haut moyen âge qui contient à la fois de la musique et des images. De plus, le style de l’artiste de ce manuscrit ne ressemble pas à ce qu’on trouve dans les autres manuscrits créés en Angleterre au XIe siècle.

Alison Hudson

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23 December 2016

The Medieval Origins of the Christmas Carol

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Most people today think of a carol as any song or hymn related to Christmas. In its origins, it is something both more and less specific than this. It is derived from the Old French word carole, referring to a round of dancers, singing and holding hands. What they sung was not limited to Christmas music, and musicologists often identify a refrain repeated after each stanza as the key feature of an early carol. Not all medieval carols were overtly religious, but most focused on the Virgin Mary or the winter holy days. The association with the season has been magnified over time, and it now less frequently refers to a specific musical form. So how does a carol get from a medieval manuscript to singers on a street corner, buskers on public transport, or loudspeakers in a shopping centre?

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Veni redemptor gentium: Cotton MS Vespasian D XII, f. 34v.

The oldest text still sung today that we would now call a Christmas carol is probably ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, by Ambrose (c. 340–397). Ambrose was once thought to have invented the hymn, although we now know that the form predates him. The history of Veni redemptor is typical of how medieval works become modern popular Christmas carols. In the Middle Ages, it was typically sung to plainchant, and was one of the standard pieces used on Christmas Eve. It can be found in many manuscripts in the British Library, including several that are online, notably Cotton MS Vespasian D XII; Harley MS 2961; and Arundel MS 155. (The Cantus database and the book Early Latin Hymnaries are great starting points for finding such texts in manuscript.) The idea of Ambrose as the creator of the hymn became so popular during the Middle Ages that a large number of poems ended up being associated with him over time; this is one of the few attributions to survive the rigour of modern scholarship.

Veni redemptor gentium in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

‘Veni redemptor gentium’ in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

In the English world, Ambrose’s hymn largely disappeared after King Henry VIII’s split from Rome, but benefitted from a revival of interest in medieval culture in the 19th century. It gained new popularity as ‘Come, thou Redeemer of the earth’, one of several well-known translations by John Mason Neale (1818–66), who was particularly gifted in expressing the meaning of his originals and matching their metres. It is today sung to many different tunes, but is most commonly paired with the music for another medieval carol, ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ (‘Unto us a boy is born’), found in the Moosburg Gradual of 1355–60, as arranged by Michael Praetorius (for ‘Geborn ist Gottes Söhnelein’). What reaches our ears today is the combined contribution of about half a dozen people over time.

Prudentius’s Corde natus ex parentis in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r

Prudentius’s ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r.

Another contender for the oldest Christmas carol is ‘Corde natus ex parentis’, by Prudentius (348–c. 413), a Spanish lawyer who became a monk later in life. Like Ambrose’s hymn, it has gone through many layers of filtering and waves of popularity. One can hear it today in several different forms, most based on ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ (another of Neale’s creations) or ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ (by R. F. Davis). The music is usually taken from the Finnish/Swedish book Piae cantiones first published in 1582, compiled by Jacobus Finno, largely from medieval sources. Purists might think this ahistorical; but even in the Middle Ages, words could be sung to many tunes from wildly varying sources.

There are many other medieval texts that remain today widely recognizable Christmas carols. Angelus ad virginem (‘The angel to the virgin’), cited by the Miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is unusual in that it is still frequently sung by choirs, but almost always untranslated; the Middle English translation, ‘Gabriel, fram Heven-King’, is much more obscure. The British Library’s collections include many early carols that almost nobody today has heard of, such as King Henry VIII’s failed classic ‘Green groweth the holly’, found in Add MS 31922.

Henry VIII’s Green groweth the holly: Add. MS 31922, f. 37v.

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’: Add MS 31922, f. 37v.

There is far more to explore in the world of medieval carols in manuscript. Most of the British Library’s holdings can be explored through the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. Research into these sources can unearth forgotten classics; The New Oxford Book of Carols was especially successful in stretching what had become a stagnant musical repertoire in the 20th century. Medieval carols can remain successful today because they are inherently flexible, are far removed from today’s commercialism, and encourage the spontaneous combination of many different traditions.

Andrew Dunning

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21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

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As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

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Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

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Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

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Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

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Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

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Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

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Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

18 August 2015

Medieval Music Mash-Up

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Every year there is always that one song (you either love or hate) that seems to take over the summer months. Friday night’s episode of The One Show featured the earliest known English song of the summer, which is found in one very special manuscript from the British Library’s collection. Harley MS 978 includes the only witness of Sumer Is Icumen In, the most famous piece of English secular medieval music. Copied in the 1260s, the manuscript is associated with Reading Abbey, and has been linked to one of its monks, William of Winchester.

BBC_The One Show_Harley MS 978

Close-up of Sumer Is Icumen In, Harley MS 978

Four main voices are intended to sing the round, plus two further parts are written at the bottom of the page.

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The text inset to the right of the page gives instruction in Latin for the performance of the round, Sumer Is Icumen In, England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

Featuring Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, the episode brings this famous medieval song from the 13th century into the 21st century. Musician and TV presenter, Richard Mainwaring even performs a modernised version at Latitude Festival, with a backing track provided by 2013’s summer classic, Get Lucky by Daft Punk (featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers).

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Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, discusses Harley MS 978

For anyone who missed it, the episode is available on BBC’s iPlayer (UK only, approximately 12 minutes in).

This TV appearance also coincides with the return of Harley MS 978 to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. The lyrics of Sumer Is Icumen In and a translation into modern English can also be found on our blog.

- Hannah Morcos

31 July 2015

Happy Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day!

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As we are sure you are all aware, today is Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day, the day on which we are urged to take time to think about the rare and unusual instruments that have gone obsolete, or are otherwise beyond our ken.  We would like to offer a number of examples in the spirit of this momentous occasion - the familiar, the forgotten and the simply odd.  Please be sure to send any other gems you might encounter to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Without any further ado:

Add MS 47683 f. 1v G70059-77
Folio with musical instruments, from a leaf from a giant Bible, Italy, 11th-12th century, Add MS 47683, f. 1v

Harley MS 4951, f. 299v E123871
Detail of a man with bells among musical neumes, from the Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, France (Toulouse), last quarter of the 11th-first quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 4951, f. 299v

Harley MS 2804 f. 3vE102183c
Detail of two musicians playing the vielle and a harp or psaltery, from the Worms
Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), 2nd-3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 3v

Add MS 62925 f. 54r copy copy
Detail of a miniature of a rabbit playing a bell-like instrument, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 54r

Stowe_ms_17_f061v copy
Detail of two monkeys playing trumpets in an unusual manner, from the Maastricht Hours, Liège, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v

Add_ms_49622_f106v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a dog playing a portative organ, from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk?), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 106v

Royal MS 14 E III f. 89r c13827-54c
Detail of a marginal painting of a man playing a rabbit-trumpet (despite distractions), from La Queste del Saint Graal, France, c. 1315 - c. 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r

 Harley MS 6563 f. 40r E123884
Detail of a cat playing a vielle, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 40r

Add_ms_18851_f419v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Bruges, c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 419v

Add MS 18852, f. 98r copy copy
Detail of a marginal painting of bagpipes (?), from the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Bruges, 1486-1506, Add MS 18852, f. 98r

Arundel_ms_263_f136r and f. 137v
Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, including a mechanical organ and timpani/drums, from the Codex Arundel, Italy (Florence, Milan, and Rome), 1478-1518, Arundel MS 263, f. 136r and 137v

- Sarah J Biggs

31 May 2014

Scraped Away Songs

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As you may have already seen if you follow @BLMedieval on Twitter, we have just uploaded images of one of the British Library's smallest but most important medieval music manuscripts onto Digitised Manuscripts.

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Ave gloriosa virginum regina, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 3r

Egerton MS 274 is a fascinating and unusual collection of secular songs and liturgical music in French and Latin, written in northern France in the thirteenth century. The pages measure 15 x 10 cm, making this a perfect pocket-book for an individual singer. Some of the pieces are set for two different voices, though, which would have needed careful handling. You can read more about the contents at Trouvère Songs Online.

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A two-part conductus 'Mundus a mundicia', from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 41r

The manuscript is one of the major sources of French chansons of the Trouvères, but frustratingly most of the first stanzas of the songs – as well as quite a number of the melodies – have been scraped away by a fourteenth-century scribe and replaced by Latin plainchant.

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The words and music of a French song scraped away and replaced by a Latin responsory chant, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 102r

The book started life probably in the 1260s as a seamless collection of songs of divine praise and songs of courtly love, presumably intended for a noble patron who was as much involved at church as at court. A later owner in the fourteenth century evidently had less time for courtly love, and changed the function of the book, making a much more ecclesiastical compilation in the process.

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Detail of a miniature of a monkey at work, from a musical miscellany in French and Latin, Egerton MS 274, f. 37r

The manuscript contains a number of interesting miniatures throughout, including our favourite above, of a monkey at work - perhaps literally 'aping' the carpenter next to him.

We'll be adding some more medieval music manuscripts to the website over the next few months: keep an eye on this blog and our colleagues’ excellent Music Blog for more information.

-  Nicolas Bell

01 April 2014

A Calendar Page for April 2014

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Happy April everybody! And what better way to start the month than with some more sensational pages from the stupendous Huth Hours? If you have already been following our blog – and who hasn’t? – you’ll know that our calendar of the year is taken from this beautiful 15th-century manuscript (for more information, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014).


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Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

So what delights does April bring us? The promise of early spring often yields images of very pleasant labours indeed for this month, and these calendar pages from the Huth Hours are no exception. Our first folio gives us a roundel miniature of a well-dressed couple courting while walking along a garden path. The themes of fertility, birth, and rebirth are emphasised by the flowering branch being carried by the ardent young man, and by the small child following the couple (whether he is acting as chaperone or as a sign of things to come remains a bit of a mystery). The saints' days and feasts for April are continued on the following folio, along with a small painting of a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus. In the roundel below is a charming scene of a shepherd surrounded by his flock, playing a recorder for his appreciative dog. A similar musical shepherd can be found on the calendar page for April of 2013; we'll let you know if we encounter any other examples!

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Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

In the background is one of the earliest representations of the infamous Leaning Tower of Utrecht. Utrecht has often been called the “Pisa of the North”, and historians have long debated how the steeple of the church of St Ignatius the Cripple came to acquire its distinctive kink. Some have attributed the lean to a lightning strike, to subsidence, or to a giant ape climbing the tower. But the image shown here is equally plausible, and seems to confirm the testimony of Lionel the Imbecile, who reported seeing mysterious lights in the sky in 1483. (Lionel was subsequently burnt at the stake by order of the anti-Pope Anacletus III, following a show trial at the Fourth Council of Constance.)

And below is our second scene, featuring the shepherd and his musical dog. Look very closely, and you can also see a startled sheep, caught in the beam of a passing spaceship, and being transported to an uncertain fate. During the 15th century, alien abductions frequently took place during the month of April; and the Huth Hours provides splendid corroboration of that fact. The artist has drawn the alien craft hovering above the trees, with the sheep being captured in a red beam arcing through the sky.


Add_ms_38126_f005r
Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

Many critics have poured scorn on the veracity of such pictures (you can read a summary in the forthcoming festschrift for Prof. Wim van der Wende, No Pain, No Gain: Controversy and Subversion in Late Medieval Art). But we at the British Library have utter faith in their validity, and are on the hunt for other examples: let us know what you think @BLMedieval.

Add_ms_38126_f005r_detail
Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison

22 February 2014

Prepare to Meet Your Doom

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Followers of this blog may harbour a suspicion that we possess an unhealthy interest in scenes of violence and torture in medieval manuscripts.  The following should remove any doubt on the matter!

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Detail of a miniature showing the punishment of cardinal sinners in Hell, from the ‘Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri, Italy (Tuscany), 1444-c. 1450, 
Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 9r

Last week, the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) tweeted this image from our Digitised Manuscripts site to highlight that 13th February was marked in some medieval calendars as the day on which Hell was created (to which anyone who has forgotten to buy a Valentine’s Day present can surely attest).

This has inspired us at the British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog to explore depictions of Hell, past and present.

Aficionados of 1990s video games will likely have fond memories of Doom, id Software’s seminal first-person shooter.  The plot follows the typical ‘scientific experiment gone awry’ trajectory.  While experimenting with teleportation technology on Mars, some scientists inadvertently open a portal to Hell – whoops!  (Guess this is why we have risk assessments…).  You, the sole survivor, must fight your way back to Earth, with just an assorted array of guns and a chainsaw (yes, really) at your disposal to fight off the assembled hordes of demons.

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Full-page miniature showing the fall of the rebel angels, from the Old English Hexateuch, England, second quarter of the 11th century,
Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 2r

The portal to Hell in Doom has an obvious antecedent in medieval art: the Hell-mouth, a representation of Hell as a gaping, often flaming, animalistic maw.  The fall of the rebellious angels from Heaven, illustrated here in the Old English Hexateuch, foreshadows the later fall of man.  The unusual depiction of a Hell-mouth as a serpent reinforces this narrative connection as well as Lucifer’s agency in both events.

The rather horrifying motif of the Hell-mouth was not confined to medieval manuscripts.  It appears – most commonly as a hairy, fanged beast – in stained glass windows and wall- and panel-paintings as well.  It was therefore visible to ordinary medieval people, for whom owning an illuminated manuscript was an unimaginable luxury, and the prospect of suffering an eternity in Hell an imminent possibility.  St John’s visions of the end of the world and the Last Judgement were frequently depicted in ‘Doom paintings’ on the walls and rood-screens of medieval churches.  Though mostly destroyed at the Reformation, examples have survived, particularly in East Anglia, some of them ironically protected and preserved by the very whitewash that was meant to obliterate them.

Add_ms_42555_f077v
Detail of a miniature showing the Last Judgment, from the ‘Abingdon Apocalypse’, England, third quarter of the 13th century,
Add MS 42555, f. 77v.

Hell-mouths were commonly depicted in illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts, swallowing up the souls of the damned, while God, the angels and the souls of the saved look on from the safety of Heaven.

Royal_ms_19_b_xv_f040r
Detail of a miniature showing the Last Judgement, from the ‘Queen Mary Apocalypse’, England (London or East Anglia), first quarter of the 14th century,
Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 40r

A personal favourite of ours comes not from an Apocalypse manuscript but from a Book of Hours.  Along the bottom of the pages, a procession of demons escorts the souls of the sinful to Hell.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene showing a demon carrying souls to Hell in a wheelbarrow, from the ‘Taymouth Hours’, England (London?), second quarter of the 14th century,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 139v.

Demons are showing carrying souls in shoulder-baskets and other contrivances, or just dragging them along the floor with a rope.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f141v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene showing a lecherous woman, from the ‘Taymouth Hours’,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 141v.

In this example, demons torment the soul of a lecherous woman as punishment for her sins: she is being ridden by one demon while the other prods her in the buttocks with a grapple and shouts ‘Avaunt, leccheur, avant’ (‘Forward, lecher, forward!’).

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f142r
Detail of a bas-de-page scene showing the casting of souls into Hell, from the ‘Taymouth Hours’,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 142r.

The procession culminates in the demons slinging the souls into the flames, to a little trumpet-fanfare provided by a demon perched on the Hell-mouth’s snout.

Contemporary critics of Doom’s violence, gore and satanic iconography (which still give us the shivers) ultimately missed the point that the storyline was inspired by Christian mythology.  After the eponymous character ‘Doomguy’ defeated the demons on Mars, he ventured into Hell itself to quash them on their home turf, and thereby re-enacted Christ’s Harrowing of Hell.

Add_ms_30337_f007r
Detail showing Christ spearing and trampling a demon and rescuing souls in the Harrowing of Hell, from the Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, southern Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075-c. 1080,
Add MS 30337, membrane 7 (inverted)

Add_ms_47682_f034r
Detail showing Christ rescuing souls in the Harrowing of Hell, with demons with trumpets and grapples and another rendering souls in a cauldron above a Hell-mouth, from the ‘Holkham Bible Picture Book’,
Add MS 47682, f. 34r

Alas, this was ultimately unsuccessful: upon Doomguy’s return to Earth, he finds that the hordes of Hell have overrun the planet (which rather neatly lay the ground for a sequel, Doom II: Hell on Earth).

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- James Freeman

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