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

23 May 2022

Medieval and Renaissance Women: PhD placement

The British Library is currently digitising some of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, from the period between 1100 and 1600. You can read more about the project on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, the oldest autobiography in English: Add MS 61823, f. 1r

As part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the funders, Joanna and Graham Barker, are providing financial support for a six-month PhD placement, starting in summer 2022. The successful candidate will be based for the duration of the placement with the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at St Pancras, London. They will gain experience of cataloguing pre-1600 western manuscripts, and they will promote the Library’s collections by writing blogposts and text for the British Library website.

This placement will provide the successful candidate with a broader understanding of curatorial roles in a major research library, as well as experience of working with manuscripts (including rolls and charters) in a variety of genres and languages. They will gain insight into the Library’s digitisation processes, and they will benefit from day-to-day contact with the curators and hands-on access to the Library’s collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. During their time at the Library, the placement student will also have access to a wide range of workshops, talks and training.

The Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD placement is intended to support early career development and is suitable for students who may wish to pursue further academic research or are considering a career in a library, museum or similar heritage organisation. Students who have undertaken previous doctoral placements or internships with the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library have subsequently gone on to hold academic positions at universities in the UK and USA, to become curators, cataloguers and researchers in major libraries, or to work in heritage organisations.

Applicants for this position should be engaged in doctoral research at a university or higher education institution in the United Kingdom. International students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa residency requirements. Their field of research should be in a discipline related to the study of medieval and early modern manuscripts, such as history of art, history, languages and literature. The ability to read Latin and other western languages is an advantage, as is knowledge of medieval and/or early modern palaeography and codicology. The Library will provide training in cataloguing western manuscripts, and in writing blogposts and other interpretative text. 

The seal of the Empress Matilda

The seal of the Empress Matilda (1140s): Add Ch 75724

Prospective applicants should submit the attached form, in which they are asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Title of your PhD
  2. Please provide a brief summary of your research for a non-specialist audience (maximum 100 words)
  3. Please explain why you are interested in a placement at the British Library in particular (maximum (100 words)
  4. Please describe why this placement appeals to you, and what skills you will gain from it (maximum 400 words)
  5. Please outline any relevant skills, experience and interests you would bring to this placement (maximum 300 words)
  6. Please provide any additional information that you think would strengthen your application (maximum 200 words)

You should obtain approval from your PhD supervisor before submitting the application. The placement is for a maximum 6 months and should be undertaken before 31 March 2023. This is a funded placement (£1,600 per month, to a maximum £9,600).

 

How to apply

Please ensure that you have carefully read the Application Guidelines before completing and submitting the Application Form.

Download Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD Placement Application Guidelines (PDF)

Download Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD Placement Application Form (Word document)

 

The deadline for applications is 11.59pm on Monday 13 June 2022. Online interviews for the shortlisted candidates will take place in the second half of June.

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

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.

11 May 2022

Collaborative doctoral studentship: The origins and development of the Cotton collection

We are pleased to announce the availability of a fully-funded collaborative doctoral studentship from October 2022, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA), under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.

The library of Robert Cotton (1571–1631) has been described as 'the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual'. This CDP offers a unique opportunity to produce an original piece of research on the origins and/or 17th-century development of Cotton's extraordinary collection.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.

This project will be supervised by Dr Thomas Roebuck and Dr Katherine Hunt, University of East Anglia, who are experts in early modern scholarship and collecting practices; and Julian Harrison and Dr Andrea Clarke, curators of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library. The award holder will be based at UEA, and will also be based at the Library for a significant proportion of the studentship. At UEA, they will join a thriving Medieval and Early Modern research community and have access to a host of training opportunities, and at the British Library they will benefit from behind-the-scenes access, learning from other professionals across the Library, and an extensive internal training offer. They will also join the wider cohort of CDP-funded students across the UK, and will be eligible to participate in CDP Cohort Development Events. This studentship can be studied either full- or part-time.

The Cotton library contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. This collection was perhaps the most important single means by which pre-Reformation textual culture was preserved: it became a repository of memory and a site of nation-making. But the origins of the library — how and why it was assembled — remain tantalisingly obscure. Its development and usage over the course of the 17th century also offers huge opportunities for fresh research into the history of antiquarian scholarship and its religio-political ramifications. This CDP offers the successful applicant a unique opportunity to produce a ground-breaking piece of research into the origins or development of the Cotton collection which is rooted in close study of Cotton's manuscripts themselves.

Research questions might include:

  • Where, when, and how did Robert Cotton (and his descendants) acquire the manuscripts that make up the Cotton collection?
  • How did Robert Cotton shape his collection? How did the coins, stones and printed books he collected complement his manuscripts?
  • To what extent is the Cotton library distinctive, compared to other libraries assembled in Europe at the same time, and what characteristics does it share with similar contemporary collections?
  • Is there any evidence that women had access to the Cotton library or made donations to it?
  • How was the library used in Robert Cotton's lifetime, and how did its usage change and develop over the course of the 17th century? What kinds of scholarly projects did it inspire?
  • How was the library used to intervene in contemporary political debates? How was the library itself shaped by the political and religious controversies of the 17th century?
  • How did the collection come to be regarded as a national library?
  • What role did Cotton's library play in the development of the idea of Britain's 'middle ages' or its national identity?  

We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.

Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification, or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting. Suitable disciplines may include, but are not limited to, English Literature, History, Art History, Classics, Modern Languages, and Library and Information Science. All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.

The deadline for applications is 8 June 2022. More details can be found on the UEA website.