Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

01 April 2024

Annual manuscripts weigh-in

It's that time of year when we carry out our annual manuscripts weigh-in.

The Bedford Hours on a weighing scale

The weighing of the Bedford Hours

In keeping with tradition, teams work overnight to weigh every manuscript in our collection. They then compare the results with the famous table compiled by Sir Horace Round (after whom the British Museum Round Reading Room was named). This enables scholars worldwide to embellish their papers with little-known facts that no-one could possibly verify, along the lines 'the Luttrell Psalter weighs as much as next door's dog'.

The Splendor Solis on the weighing scales

The weighing of the Splendor Solis

Here are some results from this year's survey. Note: manuscripts tend to gain an extra gram or two during Leap Years.

  • The Bedford Hours, a masterpiece of 15th-century Parisian illumination: 9.0114 kg, or the same as a baby Pygmy Hippo (unwashed);
  • Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise made in Germany in the 1580s: 3.067 kg, or a flamingo standing on one leg;
  • A charter of Raymond of Toulouse, with a wax seal: 0.0925 kg, or half a dormouse.

A charter placed on the weighing scales

The weighing of the charter

All measurements have been scrutinised by the Guinness Book of Records, who have kindly asked us never to bother them again.


Follow us @BLMedieval

21 March 2024

Henry VIII’s pastry tent

One of the lesser known items at the British Library is a map of an army encampment of King Henry VIII (Cotton Roll XIII 41), probably dating to one of the invasions of northern France that he led in 1513 and again in 1544. It shows a camp with all the essentials for supporting an army on campaign: a kitchen, storage for weapons and ammunition, quarters for officers and men, and … a pastry tent?

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’ between tents labelled ‘skolerie’ and ‘kechin’

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’: Cotton Roll XIII 41

At the centre of this coloured map is the king’s own tent, by far the largest tent shown. It is made up of three pavilions joined together by corridors leading to an elaborate house with windows and a chimney. This timber house accompanied Henry on both of his invasions of France. It had a fireplace, two rooms, and windows made of horn instead of glass. When the house was dismantled, the pieces filled twelve cartloads.

Drawing of the king’s tent, beginning with a timber house on the left, connected by a long cross-shaped corridor to three different tents

Henry VIII’s tent at the centre of the map

Around the king’s tent are two horseshoe rings of tents. The inner ring is mostly labelled with simple one-word names: bathhouse, kitchen, scullery, pantry and ‘pastry’. What exactly a pastry tent was for is unclear. It is possible that it was used to store pastries but more likely it housed Henry’s baker, the Groom of the Pastry. The other tents here also match the titles of other household officials like the Grooms of the Kitchen, Scullery, Pantry and Ewery. There are also tents for the king’s doctors and the clerk of the kitchen.

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The tents of the king and important officers and officials at the centre of the camp

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The second ring of tents was for the king’s bodyguards and other senior officials, mostly labelled ‘cursers’, i.e. coursers, a horse, probably housing knights, as well as tents for the Captain of the Guard and the Knight Harbinger, whose role was to arrange accommodation for the king and his court while travelling. These two rings of tents exit onto an open square to the right with groups of soldiers marching back and forth. This was probably the parade or assembly ground, called a ‘market’ or ‘place’ in Harley MS 846, a mid-16th century English guide to setting up an army encampment. The soldiers carry halberds and have swords belted at their waists. A few of them are accompanied by child-sized figures carrying weapons, probably squires or pages.

An open area with groups of soldiers armed with halberds on parade

The parade ground

The rest of the map is taken up with ordered rows of tents with those of other military officials and important figures scattered across the map, including the Provost Marshal, who was in charge of military discipline, a surgeon’s tent, chaplains, a Master of the Horse and a tent for ‘strange’ (foreign) ambassadors.

Cooks chopping meat at a long table, with baskets of loaves nearby, two men turning meat on a spit, and a man carrying a basket

Cooks preparing food for the army

A scene on the far-right side of the map shows men at a table chopping and preparing meat. Nearby, two others turn a pig on a spit over a fire while one man carries a large basket of bread and another carries an animal carcass on his back.

There are no latrines depicted on the map. This probably wasn’t the cartographer being puritanical. The guide to encampments in Harley MS 846 says that soldiers shouldn’t ‘take their easement’ within 200ft of the camp. This rule did not apply to Henry, of course, who had a chamberpot enclosed in a stool in his tent. Only a few other individuals were so privileged, including the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, the Master of the Horse, and the Treasurer-at-War.

Cannon pointing northwards, with ammunition and other equipment piled nearby, rows of tents below

Cannon set to defend on the north-eastern edge of the camp

The camp is defended not by ditches or earthworks, which would only be dug when the army was meant to stop for more than one night, but by cannon and a river encircling it to the west and south. On each side, cannon and other guns have been set up facing outwards, often with piles of ammunition nearby. The man responsible for the army’s artillery was the Master of the Ordinance, whose tent is in the top right of the map. His subordinates and supplies are nearby: a tent for storing ordinance, another for storing bows, a powder tent, and four tents for the army’s four Master Gunners.

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance and other officials, surrounded by rows of unlabelled tents

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance, other military officials, and storage

The presence of so many tents for important army officers and their supplies may make the tent for Henry’s personal baker seem out of place or eccentric. But a royal army camp would include many non-combatant members of the royal household, both to maintain the essential functions of government by issuing royal writs, proclamations, grants and other documents, and to maintain the ruler’s daily routine. A king would not be separated from his comforts just because he was on campaign.

The Groom of the Pastry is a role that still exists today. For the last two hundred years, it has been held by the head of the bakery at Fortnum & Masons, though the position probably no longer comes with its own tent.

This item has been catalogued as part of the British Library's Hidden Collections programme devoted to the Cotton charters and rolls


Rory MacLellan

Follow us @BLMedieval

09 March 2024

Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts

The British Library holds an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts relating to the ancient and medieval worlds. We are currently recruiting for a Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts to join our team, with a special responsibility for Classical, Biblical and Byzantine manuscripts.

A page of a manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid

The opening of Book XII of Virgil's Aeneid, from the 'King's Virgil': Kings MS 24, f. 227r 

Among other responsibilities, the post-holder will be required

  • to use innovative and traditional ways of interpreting and presenting our collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users
  • to manage projects relating to ancient and medieval manuscripts
  • to use their specialist knowledge to support the development, management and promotion of our ancient and medieval collections

A page from the Theodore Psalter

Depiction of the Call of David from his flocks accompanying Psalm 151, from the 'Theodore Psalter': Add MS 19352, f. 189v

Applicants should have a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject; experience of research in Classical, Biblical and/or Byzantine Studies; and a personal area of expertise relevant to the collection. Strong knowledge of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek, excellent written and oral communication skills in English, and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

For more information and to apply for this position, please visit

Closing date: 7 April 2024.

Interview date: 29 April 2024.


Follow us @BLMedieval