Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

21 January 2020

Animals on coats of arms

We invite you to explore some of the wildlife that can be found in our heraldic manuscripts. Medieval and early modern coats of arms — visual designs symbolising the heritage and achievements of individuals and families — are teeming with animal life. These animals are depicted according to heraldic conventions, but sometimes they also display fabulous features originating from medieval illustrated ‘books of beasts’, known as bestiaries.

It can sometimes be difficult to understand what these borrowings from the bestiary tradition represent. Luckily, we have a guide book at our disposal, namely the 15th-century Middle Scots Deidis of Armorie (found in Harley MS 6149). This ‘heraldic bestiary’ explains what the behaviours and appearances of animals on coats of arms indicate about the origins of specific families. The manuscript containing the Deidis of Armorie has recently been digitised and can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site. In this blogpost we'll study some extraordinary heraldic animals up close.

An opening from The Deidis of Armorie, showing coats of arms with animals on them in the margins

The Deidis of Armorie (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, ff. 16v–17r

We start with the heraldic ostrich, happily chomping on its staple food: horseshoes and keys. This imagery originates from the bestiary tradition, which supposed that the animal had remarkable digestive abilities, enabling it to consume and process iron. What does the ostrich's presence on a coat of arms mean? According to the Deidis of Armorie, it signified that the first bearer of these arms ate hard things — in other words, they were as tough as nails — and that they had a defiant nature (‘eite hard thingis and [wes] diffailland of natur’).

An ostrich with a large iron key in its beak

The ostrich as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 4926, f. 8v

Tigers are often depicted on coats of arms gazing into mirrors. According to bestiaries, this imagery illustrated the method by which robbers could steal a tigress’s cub. The cub-nappers would be pursued by the tigress, but could deceive her by dropping a mirror on the ground. The tigress would stop to look into the mirror, mistake her own reflection for her stolen cub, and start nursing it, allowing the thieves to get away. The Deidis of Armorie claims that those who first bore the tiger on their coats of arms were feigning, cunning and deceitful (‘dissimilit, wyly, and double in his dedis’).

A tiger looking down into a mirror

The tiger on a coat of arms (England, 4th quarter of the 16th century-1st quarter of the 17th century): Harley MS 6106, f. 68v

The heraldic elephant typically sported a tower or castle on its back. This imagery corresponds with the bestiary tale that male elephants were used in battle, and that men built castles filled with armed soldiers upon them. The Deidis of Armorie interprets a coat of arms inhabited by such an elephant as a sign that its first bearer was large and virtuous, and carried great burdens during their life (‘gret of body and of vertu, berand gret birdingis’).

An elephant with a castle with three towers on its back

The elephant on a coat of arms (England, c. 1632): Harley MS 6060, f. 109r

The heraldic pelican is found sitting on its nest while feeding its young with its own blood. Bestiaries told that the father pelican killed his young when they struck him with their wings, and that the mother subsequently revived them with her blood. The Deidis of Armorie explains that whoever first adopted a pelican on his coat of arms took vengeance on his neighbours when they harassed him, but that they were subsequently restored through him as well (‘[þai] wald have vengeance of his nixt nychtpuris quhen þai did oppressioun [bot] nychtburis scalit his blud for till heill þaim of his vengeance’).

A pelican with outstretched wings, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young, below in a nest, with its own blood

The pelican on a coat of arms (England, 16th century): Harley MS 709, f. 22r

The heraldic panther is another wonderful sight. In line with the bestiary descriptions, coats of arms present it as a friendly animal with multi-coloured spots, issuing ‘flames’ out of its mouth and ears. The latter represent the sweet-smelling belch that the animal was wont to issue after a meal. Although the panther is not part of the Deidis of Armorie, Rodney Dennys (The Heraldic Imagination (Fakenham: Cox & Wyman, 1975), pp. 143–44) has pointed out that heraldic manuscripts sometimes interpret the animal’s multi-coloured spots as symbols for the many virtues of the arms’ bearer.  

A panther with a white fur featuring blue, green, red, and yellow spots, and flames coming out of its mouth and ears

The panther as a heraldic supporter (England, c. 1600-1609): Harley MS 6156, f. 24r

We end our tour with the heraldic salamander. Bestiaries claimed that the salamander was a fire-resistant animal, and so we find it basking in flames of fire on coats of arms. The salamander is not covered by the Deidis of Armorie , but Dennys suggested that its presence on a coat of arms signified that its first bearer had survived great danger. James Douglas (1426–1488), 9th Earl of Douglas and 3rd Earl of Avondale, was among the first to display the animal on his coat of arms, perhaps alluding to his surviving a failed insurrection against King James II of Scotland, and subsequently escaping to England.

The head of a green salamander surrounded by flames of fire

The salamander as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 5818, f. 13v

If you would you like to see more heraldic animals, and to explore the symbolism behind them, we would encourage you to look out the Deidis of Armorie on Digitised Manuscripts.

The text quoted here can be found in Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, I, The Scottish Text Society, Fourth Series, 22 (Edinburgh: The Scottish Text Society, 1994).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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01 January 2020

New year, new manuscripts

Long-term readers of this Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts (our last list was published in June 2019). As a special treat to celebrate the New Year, today we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures.

The aftermath of a jousting scene in which the knight Jean de Saintré has knocked his opponent from his horse. Lords and ladies watch the joust from separate pavilions.
Jean de Saintré beats his opponent Enguerrand in a joust, from an illustrated copy of Antoine de La Sale’s French romance Le Petit Jean de Saintré, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Paris: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 40r 

There are now over 2900 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on our Digitised Manuscripts website and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019. This is also available as an Excel spreadsheet: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

An illustration of a lion
The zodiac sign Leo (Lion) depicted in an illustrated astrological treatise, Georgius Fendulus, Liber astrologiae (Book of astrology), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, France or Southern Netherlands: Sloane MS 3983, f. 40r

The Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever over the last 6 months, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since June 2019. To admire our most recent additions to the Digitised Manuscripts site, take a look at this list of manuscripts published since June 2019. PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019. Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
Illustrations of the punishments of Hell (left) and the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (right), from a 15th-century copy of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), England, S. E. (London): Harley MS 2838, f. 44r

You can find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts in this previous blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

An illustration of the Annunciation, showing the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, with a cat and a dog playing in the centre of the image and borders filled with birds, plants, and the figures of infants.
An illustration of the Annunciation at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin Mary, early 15th-century Book of Hours, France: Add MS 29433, f. 20r


We hope you have a very Happy New Year and enjoy exploring Digitised Manuscripts!

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine, monastic libraries and more.

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27 December 2019

Knight v griffin

You may have heard about the medieval knight’s rivalry with the snail, which we featured in this famous blogpost. But knights also had a more fearsome natural adversary, a fabulous creature from Ethiopia or India, with the body of a lion and the wings, head and (occasionally) talons of an eagle. That beast was none other than the griffin.

Images and descriptions of knights fighting griffins abound in medieval art and literature. They range from the woodcarvings on the benches of Norwich Cathedral and St Botolph’s Church at Boston (Lincolnshire) to the margins of medieval manuscripts, such as this Psalter (Add MS 24686), originally intended as a wedding gift for Prince Alphonso (d. 1284), son of King Edward I.

A knight in combat with a griffin

A knight spearing a griffin, in the Alphonso Psalter (England, late 13th century to early 14th century): Add MS 24686, f. 18r

The notion of knights and griffins in combat was influenced by the accounts found in bestiaries and natural encyclopedias. In the English translation of De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’) by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Harley MS 614, f. 104v), it was claimed that the griffin ‘greven boþe hors and man’ (‘harms both horses and men’). Another account is found in a fictional travel memoir attributed to Sir John Mandeville, describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. This evokes the image of the creature carrying a knight on horseback back to its nest:

‘þe gryffoun hath a body gretter þan viij lyonys and gretter and strangere þan C. Eglys for he wyl bere to hys nest flyande a gret hors and a man on hym’

(‘The griffin has a body that is larger than eight lions and larger and stronger than a hundred eagles, since he will carry to his nest a large horse with a man on top of it.’)

A griffin carrying a horse to its nest

A griffin carrying a knight and horse to its nest (eastern England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 54v

In the Roman d’Alexandre, a 12th-century romance describing Alexander the Great’s legendary exploration and conquest of the world, it was recounted that, after leaving the legendary country of ‘Tradiaque’, Alexander lost many men in a battle with griffins. Eventually, his archers managed to shoot them out of the air. The artist who decorated one manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre in the late 13th-century (Harley MS 4979) depicted a griffin lifting a knight in full armour into the air, thereby demonstrating its great strength.

Alexander the Great stabbing a griffin with his sword

Alexander the Great slaying a griffin (northern France or southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 A V, f. 67v

A very early representation of a knight fighting a griffin features on a 12th-century wax seal attached to a charter (Harley Charter 44 E 19) in which William Basset, abbot of St Benet of Hulme (1127-1134), Norfolk, granted the lease of the manor of Heigham in Norwich to Richard Basset (I) of Weldon. The seal of Richard Basset features a knight in full chain armour with a Norman helmet and shield, and striking with his sword a griffin holding a naked man in its jaws.

The original Basset seal

Richard Basset’s seal (England, 1127–1134): Harley Charter 44 E 19

This seal once belonged to Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650), an antiquary whose collection formed the cornerstone of the Harleian library. In his autobiography, D’Ewes mentioned viewing it on 4 August 1632, and considering it ‘the oldest [seal] that I ever saw’ (J. Halliwell-Phillipps, The Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Simonds D'Ewes (1845), II, p. 76). Seeing its fragile state, he had it ‘three times tricked out [i.e. outlined] by a most skilful hand, and [I] had two of those copies or draughts very exactly depicted or coloured’.

After acquiring the seal, D’Ewes referred to it as ‘the most precious monument in my library’. Great was his dismay, therefore, when he discovered that a portion containing the griffin's wings and the top of the tail had broken off in 1636. Luckily, he found consolation in the colour copies he had made of it:  

‘[M]y vexation and trouble would have been much the greater had I not preserved the true form and colour of the same seal in those exact draughts I had caused to be identically delineated and coloured from it.’

So far, scholars have known of only one early modern hand-drawn copy of the seal — when it was still more or less intact — made by Sir William Dugdale (1605–1686), antiquary and herald, for Sir Christopher Hatton’s Book of Seals, begun in 1640. We have now discovered an older and possibly more accurate copy while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts. This copy of the seal features in Harley MS 6152, at the end of several hand-drawn reproductions of charters related to the Basset family. According to Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), Keeper of the Harley collection, the reproductions were made by or at the instruction of Sir Simonds D’Ewes. Next to the copy, someone has added a note in which they testify to its accuracy by comparing it with the original seal. As the note is dated to 15 September 1632, it was made shortly after D’Ewes viewed the seal. All of this suggests that the version in Harley MS 6152 is one of the two colour copies that D’Ewes referred to in his autobiography.

Drawing of the Basset seal

A copy of Richard Basset’s seal (England, before or in 1632): Harley MS 6152, f. 12r

The seal’s symbolic meaning is unknown, but the image of a fabulous creature — such as the dragon or wyvern — devouring a naked man became more common on coats of arms designed during the age of heraldry, from the middle of the 12th century. The knight fighting the griffin may refer to the Basset family’s military valour or expeditions in faraway countries — where griffins were thought to live — during the Crusades. At the very least, we can deduce that medieval artists and heralds were drawing upon centuries-old precedents whenever they illustrated knights and griffins in combat.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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