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

13 April 2021

Decorating the Decretum

Church law, known as canon law (from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’), sets out the rules governing Church organization and Christian practice. In the early Christian period different types of rules, such as the decisions of councils, papal letters and episcopal statutes were circulated separately. But in the middle of the 12th century, a legal scholar called Gratian sought to systematise and harmonise these decisions by bringing them together in one volume. His work, generally known as the Decretum Gratiani sive Concordantia Discordantium Canonum (the Decretals of Gratian or concordance of discordant canons), became the first general textbook of canon law. The Decretum was the first of six volumes of canon law produced between the 12th and 14th centuries, and formed the main basis of Church law until the early 20th century.

The work quickly became a fundamental textbook for students and teachers of law, and several hundred medieval copies of the Decretum survive today. The text itself features case studies relating to a wide range of topics, including ecclesiastical administration, marriage and the Sacraments. These cases (or causae) describe various situations and develop questions from them.

Manuscript illustration of a pope with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, France, 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 10 D VIII, f. 133v (detail)

Very often, Gratian’s text is accompanied by later commentaries, used to interpret aspects of the cases discussed in the main text. These glossed copies typically feature a distinctive page layout in which Gratian’s text appears in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by the commentary.

In illuminated copies, decoration assists in distinguishing various sections of the text by illustrating each case with a decorated or historiated initial. For example, in an elaborate copy made in Barcelona, a case (causa 14) concerning the receipt of funds by clerics begins with an image of the pope sitting with an open book instructing tonsured men, while money changes hands to the left. In this copy each of the six questions also begins with a large initial in gold that corresponds to one in the surrounding gloss indicating the start of the commentary on that question.

A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, Barcelona, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 201v

Sometimes the subjects of the initials do not relate to the text directly. The beginning of Part I of the Decretum in this French copy probably made in Sens features a Channel-style initial with naked men and lions or dogs clambering amongst the structure of the letter ‘H’(umanum) (human). In these cases, the initials may have served primarily to help a reader find and remember the place of relevant cases or other divisions more quickly, instead of illustrating them. 

Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, , probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r
An illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Detail of an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r

In this way, medieval artists were able to make these legal manuscripts beautiful as well as useful. If you would like to find out more about medieval legal texts, take a look at our article on Legal manuscripts in England and France.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 April 2021

Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal

One of the most glorious celebrations of the feast of Easter in a medieval manuscript is surely the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal. In November 2020 we took a detailed look at this page and its beautiful artwork for the BBC Radio 4 Moving Pictures programme, which you can still listen to on the BBC website. If you didn’t get chance to listen to the programme at the time, or even if you did, we think it would make perfect seasonal listening for this Easter weekend.

The Resurrection of Christ from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts that were read as part of the Mass on the different feast days throughout the year. The page for Easter Sunday is lavished with intricate decoration exploring the significance of Christ’s Resurrection, as well as portraits of the main people involved in the making of the manuscript, whimsical fight scenes and beautifully observed representations of the natural world.

A detail of a picture of a bittern from the Sherborne Missal
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Discover the hidden meanings behind the artwork and celebrate the joys of medieval Easter by listening online while viewing the high-resolution image. You can also find out more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost.

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01 April 2021

Alas, poor Hamlet

How well do you know your Hamlet?

We're not talking about the tragic Prince of Denmark, of course. We're referring to Hamlet Anderson, who owned a manuscript of the Wycliffite New Testament in the 16th century.

His name was noticed by Clarck Drieshen, who is currently cataloguing the Harley collection at the British Library. In three places at the end of Harley MS 4027, Hamlet inscribed his name, as you can see in this image of f. 184r. Clarck speculates that the former owner of this manuscript may be identified as 'Hamlet Anderton, tailour' of King’s Lynn, who is recorded in A Calendar of the Freemen of Lynn, 1292–1836 (Norwich: Archaeological Society, 1913), p. 106.

A page of a manuscript showing the signature of Hamlet Anderson in two separate places

Hamlet Anderson's name is inscribed twice on a page at the end of Harley MS 4027 (f. 184r)

It may not be unreasonable to suppose that a tailor would have owned a copy of the New Testament in English, albeit a manuscript version made in the first half of the 15th century. Also on f. 184r is a list of purchased items, including shears (wool), perhaps relevant to his occupation.

A detail of the two signatures of Hamlet Anderson

A detail of Hamlet Anderson's signatures: Harley MS 4027, f. 184r

Among the other owners of this manuscript were:

  • Baudet Anderton in the 15th century (his name is inscribed on f. 140v);
  • Thomas Bloye in the 16th century (f. 102r);
  • William Peirson in the early 17th century (f. 9r);
  • Thomas Johnson in 1670 (f. 181v);
  • Thomas Peirson in 1678 (f. 181v).

The names of Baudet Anderton, Hamlet Anderson and Thomas Johnson were all recognised for the first time by Clarck while he was cataloguing Harley MS 4027.

A manuscript page of the New Testament, written in Middle English, in 2 columns, and with decorated initials

The opening page of the Wycliffite New Testament, in Middle English (England, 15th century): Harley MS 4027, f. 1r

We have now added descriptions of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the Harley collection to the British Library's online catalogue. We'd love you to explore them for yourselves. Maybe you will encounter more familiar names or discover unfamiliar manuscripts for the first time.

Julian Harrison

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