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

14 August 2022

Gold galore in the Harley Golden Gospels

Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.

The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them. 

A detail of the gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, taken at an angle so it catches the light
A detail of gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, the Carolingian Empire, c.800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Golden writing

While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.

A text page, written in two columns of gold script, with a patterned frame
Text page with decorated gold border from the Harley Golden Gospels: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Canon Tables

Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen. 

Canon tables, lists of numbered passages from the Gospels inside an ornately decorated architectural frame
Canon tables with decorated gold columns and symbols of the four Evangelists: an angel, a lion, an ox and an eagle: Harley MS 2788, f. 6v

Title Page

The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.

Title page with a roundel containing an inscription announcing the four Gospels written in silver and gold ink, surrounded by plants and animals
Title page in gold and colours with a full border, Harley MS 2788, f. 12v

Evangelist portraits

Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.

Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 13v-14r

Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering. 

Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 71v-72r

The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 108v-109r

The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).

Frontispiece to John’s Gospel
Frontispiece to John’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 161v-162r

With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

09 August 2022

Breaking the news of the fall of Richard II

The oldest item in the British Library’s current Breaking the News exhibition (open until 21 August 2022) is an account of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. This small pamphlet is the earliest surviving example of printed news in Britain, but of course written records of contemporary events and experiences survive from ancient times, and from many parts of the world.

Page with printed image of an army with spears behind a hill, and a soldier handing a message to a king in front of a pavilion
An illustrated account of the Battle of Flodden, ‘Hereafter ensue the trewe encountre of batayle lately don betwene Engla[n]de and Scotlande etc’., Richard Fa[w]ques [1513].

A key focus of the current exhibition is the biases revealed in the way news is reported. Though they may not have been as immediate, or intended for circulation in the same way that news is today, medieval historical chronicles are evidence of the way events were seen and recorded by eyewitnesses at the time or shortly afterwards. The material that writers of chronicles chose to include or omit can tell us as much about their viewpoints and opinions as the contents themselves. An example of this is the story of capture of King Richard II of England (r. 1377 – 1399) in 1399, his mysterious death soon afterwards, and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV of England (r. 1399 – 1413).

In the later Middle Ages, those in power in England and on the Continent were keen to own books about the history of their dynasties, and some of these include reports of near-contemporary events. The fall of Richard II is recorded and illustrated in a number of histories and chronicles produced shortly after the event. One of these is a work by Jean Creton in rhyming French, the La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard II), devoted purely to the subject.

A group of noblemen in a castle with turrets, with one kneeling holding a sceptre before a figure in a red robe; knights guard the gate; text beneath
Richard II meets Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 50r

Jean Creton, a historian and poet who was sent in April 1399 by King Charles VI of France to accompany Richard II on a military expedition to Ireland, gave an eyewitness account of the capture of the king at Flint Castle in August 1399 and was commissioned by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to write this record. In his account, Jean condemns Henry’s treasonous acts, and those of his supporters, and calls for a response from the French, Flemish, Germans and Bretons.

Seven copies survive, of which only this one (Harley MS 1319), formerly owned by the Duc de Berry, brother of the French king, is illustrated. The dramatic miniatures provide an eyewitness perspective and guide the audience’s interpretation. For example, bright costumes are used to identify the key characters and their ranks.

A figure in a red robe is led by a bearded figure in a tall hat and spurs towards a group of figures with swords in front of a city gate; knights with pikes stand behind
Richard II is delivered to the citizens of London, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 53v

 

Seated robed men and women on either side of a red throne are presented to a man in a blue and gold garment
Henry IV is recognized as king by parliament, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 57r

A comprehensive account of events surrounding the deposition of Richard II was also recorded by Jean Froissart (c.1337- c.1405), a courtier and historian who worked in England and the Low Countries. His Chroniques deal mainly with events in England, France and Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. Froissart, perhaps wary of alienating the new king, does not take sides by attributing the murder to Henry IV.

A king in ermine receives a sceptre from a man in a grey garment before a throne in a palace; courtiers watch and two seated men read from scrolls
Richard resigning the crown; the funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 401v

Froissart’s Chroniques end in 1400 and the last episode illustrated in this copy is Richard II’s funeral, though the text itself ends with a dispute in 1400 between the Pope, the king of France and the citizens of Liege, in which Froissart tells how the latter threatened to throw any further messengers sent by the Pope into the River Meuse! At this point, aged around 63, he ended his chronicle but it remained a popular historical work, with copies like this one being made in the late 15th century and beyond.

This copy of Froissart’s Chroniques (Royal MS 18 E ii) was made for King Edward IV (r. 1461 – 1470), who had also gained the throne of England after deposing the previous king, who died mysteriously thereafter. In this case the deposed king was Henry VI, grandson of Henry IV who had deposed Richard II. Perhaps Edward pondered on this striking parallel as he read his finely illuminated chronicle manuscript.

A funeral cortage in a city, with a carriage containing a body pulled by two horses and mourners in black robes riding beside it; citizens watch from behind
The funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480), Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 416v

You can find out about news in modern and contemporary times in the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition, which runs to Sunday 21 August. For more on French chronicles in British Library manuscripts, see our virtual exhibition on Writing and Picturing History, Historical Manuscripts from the Royal collection.

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 July 2022

A tour of the Tower

Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?

Miniature of Charles, duke of Orléans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, with the city and London Bridge in the background

The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.

Drawing of medieval London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, enclosed by the city wall

London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.

Annotated image of the Tower of London and London Bridge in the background, from an illuminated manuscript made c. 1483

The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.

To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.

The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.

The White Tower of the Tower of London today

The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia

For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.

 

Rory MacLellan

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