THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Printed books"

09 April 2018

Mansion's manuscripts in Bruges

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If you visit Bruges in the near future, we highly recommend that you visit the exhibition Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion, on at the Groeningemuseum until 3 June 2018. The British Library is a major lender to this show, which is devoted to Colard Mansion, a clerk, printer and bibliophile who was active in Bruges between 1457 and 1484. Mansion worked with William Caxton and was the first to experiment with engravings as illustrations in printed books. In this exhibition, the style and composition of his woodcut illustrations are compared to images in contemporary illuminated manuscripts. 

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A view of Flanders, from the TrĂ©sor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton MS Augustus V, f. 345v

The British Library has loaned three illuminated manuscripts and four printed books to this exhibition. Two of these manuscripts — the Ovide MoralisĂ© en prose and the TrĂ©sor des Histoires â€” were brought to the court of King Edward IV in the 15th century. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a very popular text in the later Middle Ages, being widely copied in both Latin and in various French translations. The prose version, known as the Ovide MoralisĂ© en prose, contains added moralisations that would have appealed to the tastes of the Burgundian elite. In Mansion's book, the scenes from the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece and Helen of Troy have a similar composition to the ones in Edward IV’s manuscript copy. 

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Jason yoking the oxen, with the Golden Fleece on a plinth in the background, from Ovide MoralisĂ© en prose, Bruges, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 102r

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The abduction of Helen, from Ovide Moralisé en prose: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 193r

The manuscript of the TrĂ©sor des Histoires, a world history in French, contains some of the most sophisticated images associated with a secular chronicle. The miniature of Pope John XII on display in Bruges is attributed to the Master of the Getty Froissart, whose style is similar to that of the engraver of the illustrations in Mansion’s edition of Boccaccio, considered to be his masterpiece.

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Pope John XII, from the TrĂ©sor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475–80: Cotton Augustus MS V, f. 460r

There are 55 large miniatures in this volume. The early view of the Flemish countryside reproduced at the beginning of this blogpost is a fine example of the use of perspective and the refined treatment of light and landscape.

The only surviving manuscript of a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s CitĂ© des Dames has also been loaned to the exhibition, and is presented in a section on women in society in Mansion’s milieu. Christine’s work was a response to the misogynistic writings of the time, taking examples from the life and deeds of virtuous women in history and mythology. Although the illustrations are sometimes unfinished, they are highly original, illustrating the trials and achievements of famous women. In the image below, Camilla, a motherless infant, is taken across a river in a boat made by her father, King Metabus of the Volscians, fleeing from his rebellious subjects. They hid in the woods, where she was fed on the milk of wild deer and grew up learning to hunt with a slingshot.

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Camilla, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen, Bruges, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 64v

In another scene from the same manuscript, Fredegund, the widow of Chilperic, is shown leading the Frankish troops into battle with her son Clothar still at her breast, employing a clever ruse to defeat their enemies.

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Fredegund, from Het Bouc van de Stede der Vrauwen: Add MS 20698, f. 63r

In addition, four British Library incunabula are on display in Bruges, two of which are the work of Colard Mansion:

La Bible des poetes [Paris: Antoine VĂ©rnard, 1493–94]

L’abusĂ© en court [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1479–84]

Ovide moralisé [Bruges: Colard Mansion, 1484]

Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [Ghent?: David Aubert?, for William Caxton, about 1474–75]

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La Bible des poetes [Paris, Antoine VĂ©rnard, 1493–94]: IC.41148, f. 1v

 

 

Chantry Westwell

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02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

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How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?

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A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?

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Five species of unicorn, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694): British Library 37.h.7., part 2, p. 9

On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise ParĂ©, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. ParĂ© was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.

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An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise ParĂ©, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r

Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?

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The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).

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A heron: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 4r

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Owls: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 10r

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A lioness: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 16v

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A centaur: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 19v

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A porcupine: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 26v

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Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 31v

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An upside-down octopus: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 40r

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A cuttlefish: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 41v

And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. Tickets are selling fast: for more information, please follow this link.

 

Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts

We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval. If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.