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 May 2020

It's tournament season!

On the 21st of May 1390, during a three-year truce in the Hundred Years’ War, the French knights, Boucicaut, de Roye and Saint Pi, set up three luxurious crimson tents in a spacious field between Calais and the Abbey of Saint-Inglevert. They issued a challenge to all comers for a friendly trial of arms lasting 30 days. Many English knights attended, one being Sir John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, who was highly applauded for his contests against Boucicaut and de Roye. Afterwards, Huntingdon asked to be allowed one more challenge for the love of his lady, but this was not permitted by the rules. Over four days of tilting, more than 40 challenges were issued, each one described in detail by the writer Jean Froissart in his Chronicles.

The tournament of Saint-Inglevert in the Harley Froissart
The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r

Chivalric tournaments were a regular form of aristocratic entertainment from the 12th century onwards, often accompanying great occasions such as coronations or marriages. These simulated battles were well-planned and choreographed events where a knight could show off his skills. They also served as a training ground for real warfare.

The warmer months were the popular season for tournaments, as shown by this image of the activity for the month of June from a 16th-century Book of Hours known as the Golf Book. Calendars in these books often contain miniatures of the labours of the months, cycles of largely agricultural activities such as reaping and ploughing that were carried out throughout the year, but here sports and games supplement these traditional scenes. The miniature shows knights jousting and sword-fighting on horseback in a crowded arena. Below the picture is a border scene of figures riding on wooden hobby horses and holding toy windmills, perhaps intended as a parody of the tournament above.

A tournament before a city
A tournament before a city, workshop of Simon Bening, in the Golf Book, Add MS 24098, f. 23v

A winter tournament was held to celebrate the coronation of Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV of France in February 1403, in which Sir Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, fought as her champion. This drawing from his illustrated biography, the recently digitised Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, shows him wearing a helmet with the Warwick emblem, a bear with ragged staff, while the queen points to him from the balcony.

Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament
Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament, in the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 3r

The medieval travel narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville describes a tournament in Constantinople, watched by the Byzantine emperor. The event is depicted in this elaborate scene based on a Czech translation of the Travels, illustrated in Bohemia in the early 15th century.

A tournament in Constantinople with jousting from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
A tournament in Constantinople with jousting, in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Add MS 24189, f. 15v

Some of the most fabulous images of martial display are from manuscripts of courtly romance literature, which provided inspiration for the real events, with medieval knights doing their best to emulate Arthurian super-heroes like Sir Lancelot. This scene is from the romance of Méliadus about the chivalric deeds of Tristan’s father. In one episode, Méliadus falls in love with the queen of Scotland when he sees her passing in a magnificent procession on her way to a tournament. He takes part, defeating numerous challengers and winning the queen’s admiration. He is usually portrayed bearing the Neapolitan arms in this manuscript, which was copied and decorated for the king of Naples, Louis de Tarente, who founded the first Italian order of knighthood, the Nodo (knot).

Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching
Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching, in Méliadus, Add MS 12228, ff. 214v-215r

Medieval tournaments usually consisted of a melée, or mock combat between two teams, preceded by jousting between individuals, as depicted in this miniature from the French romance of Ponthus et Sidoine. To cut a long story short, Ponthus is heir to the kingdom of Galicia and one of Hoel’s knights. He falls secretly in love with Sidoine, who is promised in marriage to the Duke of Burgundy, and he has to flee to Britain to escape her father’s wrath. Returning to Brittany on his way to win back his kingdom, he finds that Sidoine’s wedding to the duke is about to be celebrated with a tournament. Disguised as a white knight, he kills the Duke in a joust, winning Sidoine’s hand. He regains his kingdom and the pair rule as joint monarchs of Galicia and Brittany. This plot is almost identical to the English romance of King Horn, though most names have been changed.

Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book
Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Somewhere between medieval legend and recorded history is a work known as Le Petit Jean de Saintré. It claims to be a chivalric biography, and there was indeed a knight by this name who lived about a hundred years before it was written, but the author pays little attention to historical facts. The young Jean is educated in the values of knighthood by the Dame des Belles-Cousines, who instructs him on a variety of subjects from the seven deadly sins to personal grooming. He travels around the courts of Europe, winning fame at many tournaments, but in a surprising plot twist at the end, the virtuous Dame falls prey to a lusty monk, much to the dismay of her earnest young champion.

Jean de Saintré in a tournament
Jean de Saintré in a tournament, Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 32v

But not everyone took tournaments so seriously. In this manuscript border, two men in wicker armour tilt at each other while riding on sheep, and one falls clumsily to the ground. Looks like quite the baa-lancing act!

Royal_ms_1_e_v_f171r-(detail)

Men jousting on sheep in an illuminated border from a book of Gospels, Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

Chantry Westwell

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20 May 2020

Remembering Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.

Spong Man on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)

Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.

Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.

An illuminated page from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Moore Bede

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library

The opening page of Textus Roffensis

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)

Round the corner, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels shared a case.

A decorated page from the Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin

A decorated page from the Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)

In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)

Codex Amiatinus on display in the exhibition

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)

The room focusing on Mercia included the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, displayed next to King Offa’s gold dinar.

The Lichfield Angel on display in the exhibition

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

The gold dinar of King Offa

Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights of the room on the West Saxons were the Alfred Jewel displayed directly in front of a case containing the copy of the Pastoral Care that Alfred sent to Worcester.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)

A page from King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care

The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)

The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.

The four poetic codices on display

The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)

Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A page for Yorkshire in Great Domesday

Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)

Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library

An opening of two pages from the Harley Psalter

The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603

A page from the Eadwine Psalter

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)

Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.

 

Claire Breay

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18 May 2020

Fabulous Mr Fox and other wise tales

Early in the 1400s, Ulrich von Pottenstein (c. 1360–1417), a clerk and chaplain to Duke Albert IV of Austria, translated into German a collection of Latin fables. Known in their expanded version as Das Buch der natürlichen Weisheit ('The Book of Natural Wisdom'), these fables describe the interactions between animals, humans, plants and the natural elements in order to teach moral lessons to their readers. One of the finest illustrated copies of this work, found in Egerton MS 1121, has recently been digitised. This manuscript, containing more than 70 fables, can teach us much about wisdom, beginning with:

(1) Listen to your sense of reason.

When the animals gather to choose the wisest, they divide into two factions. The land animals nominate the Fox and the birds elect the Raven. But the Monkey intervenes, explaining that they have chosen not with reason but with carelessness and poor judgement. They have allowed themselves to be misled, mistaking the cunning of the Fox and Raven for wisdom.

The land animals gather around the brown Fox (left), and the birds around the black Raven (right).

The Fox and Raven are chosen as the wisest animals: Egerton MS 1121, f. 4v

(2) Question things that appear to be certain.

The Fox plays dead in order to catch the Raven, who is sitting in a tree. The scavenging bird comes closer but, knowing the Fox’s cunning, inspects the ‘carcass’ from a safe distance. When the Raven notices that the Fox’s heart is beating, he drops a stone on his head and calls him out as a deceiver. The Fox, in turn, drops his charade.

he brown Fox plays dead under the tree in which the Raven sits.

The Fox and the Raven: Egerton MS 1121, f. 7v

(3) Choose your company carefully.

The Fox has remorse for his sins and decides to go on a pilgrimage. En route, the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine and Peacock try to join him, but the Fox considers them imprudent and shakes them off. Instead, he chooses wiser animals as his fellow pilgrims: the Ant, Tracking Dog, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey and (multi-coloured) Panther. The Fox explains that, if you keep company with the wise and holy, you will become wise and holy as well.

On the left, the Fox rejects animals as fellow pilgrims. From bottom to top they are: the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine, and Peackock. On the right, the Fox invites other animals to join him on his pilgrimage. From bottom to top they are: the Ant, Weasel, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey, and Panther with multi-coloured spots.

The Pilgrim Fox chooses his company: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

(4) Listen to good advice.

The Monkey decides to follow a sailor into the mast of a ship. The Raven warns against it, but the Monkey ignores the advice, falls down and hurts himself. He then sits on a king's throne, ignoring the warning of the Fox. Only when he is thrown off and bitten by dogs does he realise that he should listen to sound advice.

On the left, the Monkey climbs into the mast of a ship while the Raven, to his left, warns him. On the right, the Monkey holds a golden sceptre and sits on the throne of a king while the Fox, below him (in the right lower corner), warns him. Below the boat and throne, the Monkey is being bitten by two white dogs.

The Monkey ignores the advice of the Raven and the Fox: Egerton MS 1121, f. 48v

(5) Don’t put yourself above others.

A Cloud, newly born from the Earth, leaps high up into the air. Her mother, Earth, implores her to return. But the Cloud answers that she wants to raise herself above all the things in the natural world. The Earth then teaches her that those who exalt themselves will fall deep. Even the Sun, which raises itself high into the sky, goes down. It is better to be humble. As a reminder of this, Nature has placed the human heart and feet, that keep the entire body going, below the head. The Cloud is persuaded and lets herself fall back to Earth.  

A blue undulating beam, representing the new-born Cloud, leaps up into the air from a green field with flowers, representing the Earth.

The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth: Egerton MS 1121, f. 58v

(6) Use your powers wisely.

A fish with razor-sharp teeth tells the Swordfish that he would like to have a sword as well, in order to rob others. The Swordfish replies that it would be best if the other fish doesn’t have a sword or even teeth: corrupted hearts always take the opportunity to use the good things they have for evil purposes, turning their own luck into unhappiness.

Two blue-grey fish with scales in a small pond. The fish on the left has razor sharp teeth (Toothfish), while the fish on the right holds a sword in its mouth (Swordfish).

The ‘Toothfish’ and the Swordfish: Egerton MS 1121, f. 67r

(7) Greed leads to more loss than gain.

Having devoured yet another prey, the gluttonous Crocodile lies sleeping with its jaws open. The bird ‘Scrofilus’ seizes its opportunity, crawls inside the Crocodile’s mouth, and mortally wounds him from the inside. The Crocodile wakes up and asks why the bird has injured him. Scrofilus explains that those who always desire more always lose more than they gain. Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, always wanted to possess more lands; he was never satisfied and became poor in heart as a result.

A green crocodile with a large curled tail sleeps with its jaws open. A grey bird that sits in a tree above him flies down and wounds him inside his mouth.

Scrofilus mortally wounds the sleeping Crocodile: Egerton MS 1121, f. 97v

(8) Wealth always comes with a price.

The Monkey wants to grow a long tail like that of the Fox. But he then meets the Elephant who has removed his tusks to avoid being used in battle; the Swallow whose stomach has been cut open for the precious ‘swallow stone’ (Chelidonius); the Beaver who has removed his testicles to escape hunters looking for his castoreum; and the Peacock whose shiny tail has been cut off. The Monkey realises that wealth always comes with suffering and forgets about the tail. 

A brown monk talks with a brown Fox. Behind them stands the Elephant without tasks and with a castle on his back.

The Monkey with the Fox and the tuskless Elephant: Egerton MS 1121, f. 102r

(9) Good things take time.

The Gourd is proud to have reached the same height as the 100-year-old Palm within only a few summer days. The plant thanks Nature for allowing him to grow so quickly. But the Palm hears the Gourd’s boast and replies that what grows quickly will also wither quickly. The Palm gives the example of the quick-growing fish ‘Effimer’ (Ephemeral) that only lives for one day, and the slow-growing elephant that lives for 300 years.

On the left stands a palm tree with green foliage. Next to it, on the right, stands a Gourd with large green fruits and lobed leafs.

The Palm Tree and the Gourd: Egerton MS 1121, f. 121v

(10) Seek treasure inside yourself.

A Youth wants to get rich by visiting the ‘Golden Mountains’ in India. Upon reaching the emerald-covered mountains of pure gold, an Old Man warns him that all visitors are killed by griffins, fabulous creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Youth is downcast but the Old Man explains that he already carries the greatest treasure inside his own heart. If he listens to his heart — and not greed — he will only seek pure goodness and not gold. Because gold only leads to vice, the peaceful Brahmani (‘Bragmani’) dispose of their gold in deep lakes and Nature hides it from mankind deep inside the Earth. The Youth thanks the Old Man for helping him find true treasure and no longer desires material wealth.

A Youth, wearing a pink robe with blue tights, is warned by an Old Man, with a beard and wearing a purple robe. In the right upper corner are the Golden Mountains with griffins flying around them.

The Old Man warns the Youth about griffins in the Golden Mountains: Egerton MS 1121, f. 114v

Follow your voice of reason, avoid bad company and tricksters, listen to good advice, stay humble, live a measured life, take time to grow, and look inside your own heart. That’s the path to Natural Wisdom.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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