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

28 October 2021

Into the inferno

700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.

A poster for the exhibition Inferno.
The exhibition poster for Inferno, curated by Jean Clair, at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.

The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.

A representation of the Last Judgement from the Winchester Psalter, showing an enormous hell-mouth swallowing demons and the souls of the damned, and an archangel locking the gates of Hell.
The Last Judgement, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.

The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing a crowd of sinners swallowed by the Mouth of Hell during the Last Judgement.
A crowd of sinners in the Mouth of Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail)

Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing an archangel locking the door to Hell, during the Last Judgement.
An archangel locks the doors to Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail).

You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.


Calum Cockburn
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25 October 2021

More Harley manuscripts online

Two years ago, we announced that we had started to revise the online descriptions of manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection. At that point, back in May 2019, relatively few of the Harley manuscripts were included in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (searcharchives.bl.uk), and so readers had to rely in most part on the entries in the old published catalogue, printed in 1808–12.

A page from an illuminated manuscript, decorated in blue, yellow, red and other colours, depicting the Tree of Jesse, and with a decorated border including flowers, a bird, and a butterfly

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse at the beginning of Psalm 1 (Rouen, around the 1490s, with additions made in England or the southern Netherlands): Harley MS 1892, f. 31v

Today, we can tell you that more than 3,500 Harley manuscripts, charters and rolls can now be found in our online catalogue, the result of many months of patient research and cataloguing, much of it done under the pressures of lockdown. Given that there are more than 7,600 Harley manuscripts, there is still some way to go, but a significant number of those written before the year 1600 (and many written after that date) now have updated records. You can read more about the Harley collection in our online guide.

A text page written in Irish, in Irish script, with larger letters in black marking the beginning of new paragraphs

A page at the beginning of An Senchas Már (Ireland, c. 1578): Harley MS 432, f. 4r

So which manuscripts have been added to our catalogue most recently? A brief list of their contents will give you some flavour of the range of the Harley collection, and the complexities of providing modern, accurate entries for them. For example, Harley MS 432 contains An Senchas Mára 16th-century legal text written in Irish. We know that its scribe was Gilla na Naem Ó Deoráin, according to an inscription in ogham on f. 14r, and he was writing at Aninsi art Labadrais, possibly Inch Saint Lawrence (Co. Limerick). Harley MS 4775 contains the Gilte Legende, a Middle English prose translation of the Legenda Aurea. Its scribe was 'Ricardus Franciscus', who may have copied the text directly from another manuscript, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 372. Harley MS 4313 is a formulary for legal process in the Court of Arches at London, begun in the 1560s, and is typical of the sorts of administrative manuscripts that most interested Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer under Queen Anne, and his son, Edward. Harley MS 1892, in turn, is a beautiful illuminated Psalter, made in Rouen in the late-15th century for an English patron, and subsequently heavily refurbished.

A decorated page from an illuminated manuscript, with the text arranged in 2 columns and with gold initial introducing different sections of text

A page from the Gilte Legende (London, middle of the 15th century): Harley MS 4775, f. 237r

The credit for cataloguing the pre-1600s Harleys over the past 18 months should go to Clarck, Calum, Ellie, Peter, Kathleen, Seosamh, Chantry and other members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team. Despite the issues brought on by Covid, they were able to produce draft Harley records in many instances, which were then enhanced and completed when they returned to the office. We hope that this in turn will support other people's research and pleasure, and that it leads to us gaining a better understanding of medieval and early modern manuscript culture.

You can search for the Harley manuscripts on our online catalogue, and you can also browse the collection available so far.

 

Julian Harrison

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21 October 2021

Treasures on Tour in Cornwall

The latest leg of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme sees the loan of the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth, a medieval Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ, to a new exhibition in Redruth. These manuscripts are on display from 23 October 2021 until 22 January 2022 at Kresen Kernow (‘Cornwall Centre’), in an exhibition entitled ‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’.

The Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381) is the earliest surviving manuscript known to have been in use in Cornwall. It was produced in Brittany towards the end of the 9th century, but by the 940s it had been taken to the Cornish priory of St Petroc. The priory was initially in Padstow, but subsequently relocated to Bodmin following Viking attacks.

A page from the Bodmin Gospels, with large decorated initials IN, decorated in red, beginning the word 'Initium' at the start of the Gospel of Mark

The opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

From the mid-10th to the 11th centuries, numerous scribes copied documents onto blank pages and into the margins around the text of the Gospels. These documents, known as manumissions, record the freeing of many enslaved individuals whose existence in Cornwall is not noted in any other sources. The text of some of the documents was erased in the past by scraping the ink off the parchment, but in recent years multispectral imaging has made these texts legible again.

The Bodmin Gospels is open at ff. 8v–9r in the exhibition in Redruth, showing a page with four added manumission documents on the left, opposite the first canon table, listing parallel passages in the four Gospels.

A page from the Bodmin Gospels containing the manumissions of four slaves

Copies of four manumission documents in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 8v

A decorated page from the Bodmin Gospels containing an arch with three columns, painted in red, and the text of the canon tables

The first canon table in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 9r

On display alongside the Bodmin Gospels is Pascon Agan Arluth, a Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ (Harley MS 1782). This manuscript was written in the 15th century, and appears to be a copy of a text originally composed in the previous century, making it the earliest surviving complete Cornish text. It also includes 10 coloured drawings in the lower margins, and is the earliest known illustrated manuscript written in Cornish.

A page from the Cornish Passion Poem with an illustration in the lower margin, showing Herod sitting on the left in a red chair, with 5 figures to his right coloured in red, black and green

Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ before King Herod: Harley MS 1782, f. 9r

The narrative of the poem, written in 259 8-line stanzas, focuses on the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, drawing on the accounts found in the Gospels, with other additional material.

A page from the Cornish Passion Poem with an illustration in the lower margin, showing Christ on the left in a red robe holding the Cross, coloured in yellow, and followed by two figures coloured in black and green

Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ carrying the Cross: Harley MS 1782, f. 14v

The project to develop Kresen Kernow, where the manuscripts are on display, was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Cornwall Council, to create a new home for Cornwall’s archives and gallery spaces, within the walls of the former Redruth Brewery. It opened in September 2019 and houses over 1.5 million manuscripts, maps and documents from Cornwall Record Office, as well as photographs, books and newspapers from the Cornish Studies Library, and the archaeological records and photographs from the Historic Environment Record.

A photograph of Kresen Kernow

The Kresen Kernow building in Redruth © Phil Boorman

The new exhibition in Redruth includes medieval items from Kresen Kernow’s own collection. It follows on from the display this summer of four early Cornish language play-scripts on loan from the Bodleian Library and the National Library of Wales: the Cornish Ordinalia; the Creation of the World; the Life of St Meriadoc (Bewnans Meriasek); and the Life of St Kea (Bewnans Ke).

‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’ opens to the public on Saturday 23 October 2021 and runs until Saturday 22 January 2022. More information on opening times and how to book free tickets is available on the Kresen Kernow website.

The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year, as part of this programme, we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as George Eliot’s manuscript of Middlemarch to Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.

 

Claire Breay

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