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

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 pre-book your tickets online now.

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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.

05 May 2022

We’re going on a bear hunt

It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.

Illustration of a climbing bear in a manuscript margin
Illustration of a climbing bear in the margins of a Book of Hours, Ghent-Tournai area, c. 1425-50: Harley MS 2433, f. 76v (detail)

And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?

A printed playing card featuring nine illustrations of beasts, including the climbing bear in the centre
The ‘nine of beasts’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

The Master of the Playing Cards

The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.

Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.

A printed playing card, featuring seven illustrations of deer
The ‘seven of deer’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

Playing cards as manuscript models

Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.

One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.

A table showing images of two wild men and a deer from the Saluces Hours, next to two wildmen and a deer from the Master of the Playing Cards
Left: figures from the margins of the Saluces Hours, Add MS 27697, ff. 13r and 19r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:

A page from a Gutenburg Bible, with illuminated borders including the climbing bear
Illuminated Bible in Latin, printed by Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, in Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, vol. 1, leaf 161, gathering 17/3r, Source Digital PUL
Detail of the climbing bear from the Gutenburg Bible
The climbing bear from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL

The bear moves to Flanders

Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.

An illuminated page from the Book of Hours
An illuminated page from the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial of the Virgin and Child and a decorated border, from a Book of Hours (Diocese of Tournai, perhaps Ghent, mid-15th century): Harley MS 2433, f. 25r

A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:

A table of animal illustrations from the Harley Book of Hours, next to illustrations from the Master of the Playing Cards, showing a climbing bear, a crouching bear, a walking lion and a preening bird
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, ff. 76v, 68r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:

A page from the Ghent Privileges
A page from the Ghent Privileges, with a miniature of Johanna, Countess of Flanders and Hainault, and Thomas of Savoy, with a decorated border of acanthus leaves, flowers, birds, animals and coats of arms: Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source
A detail from the border of the Ghent Privileges, showing the climbing bear
Detail of a climbing bear from a border in the Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source

Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:

A table of images from the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges, showing a goat-like creature, a bat, a winged bipedal elephant, and an owl
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433. Right: figures Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583 (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm), Source

This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.

Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).

Four climbing bears from different books next to each other
The climbing bear in four different versions. Left: from the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, f. 76v. Centre left: from an engraved playing card by the Master of the Playing Cards, BnF, Source / BnF. Centre right: from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL. Right: from the Ghent Privileges, Vienna ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r, Source

Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?

You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.

Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).