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

24 September 2021

The Green Knight: the movie and the manuscript

What's the first thing that you think of when you hear the words 'the Green Knight'? Is it the new Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, which has its UK release on 24 September? Or, if you are a medieval nerd, is it the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we look after at the British Library?

We haven't yet seen the film (have you booked your tickets yet?) but the 14th-century manuscript is available to view in full online, and it is also currently on display, for free, in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Its full-page illustrations have a charm all of their own, even if they were once dismissed as 'coarsely executed'. Take, for instance, the scene shown below, which prefaces the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v). At the top of the page, Sir Gawain (dressed in red and holding an axe) is addressing King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at their distinctly un-round table. Below, the Green Knight mounted on his green horse holds his severed head aloft, in front of a clearly bemused Gawain.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing in the foreground the Green Knight on horseback holding his severed head before Sir Gawain, who is wearing a red tunic. Above, Gawain holding his axe stands to the left of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, wearing crowns, and a third figure on the right.

There are three further illustrations accompanying the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all painted in the same palette and in which all the characters have identical features and hairstyles. These illustrations follow one another in sequence at the end of the poem (ff. 129r, 129v, 130r). First, we have Bertilak's lady entering Gawain's bedchamber in order to seduce him (f. 129r). She is wearing what seems to be a turban and a brightly spotted dressing gown. Gawain is swathed, quite fittingly, in a green blanket.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing Bertilak's lady standing before a sleeping Gawain

Then we have the scene of Sir Gawain (on horseback) and the Green Knight (wielding the axe) before the Green Chapel (f. 129v). It has to be said that this particular page is exceedingly green, with the odd hints of other colours to delineate Gawain and the Green Knight's blond hair.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing Gawain on horseback approaching the Green Chapel, with the Green Knight awaiting him

Finally, a kneeling Gawain is shown being greeted by Arthur and Guinevere beneath a dark blue canopy (f. 130r). The perspective of the three figures at the rear is disproportionate to that of Gawain before them and the paint, it has to be said, has been applied rather thickly. But the king and queen's expressions say it all: Gawain has accomplished his challenge and has saved the honour of King Arthur's court.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and a third figure standing before a kneeling Sir Gawain

There are some wonderful still images of The Green Knight movie available on the IMDb website. The costume design of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) and the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) clearly owes nothing to their medieval counterparts. But we love their distinctive headdresses — Dev Patel shown below looks a tad like a Sun King — and the sheer menace on the Green Knight's face. The image of the Green Knight riding into King Arthur's court (featuring, incidentally, a very round-looking table) makes our hairs stand on end. There may be little in common with the image in the unique medieval manuscript, but they both convey a similar mood. This is a moment of wonder, of real danger, and of enticing mystery. We hope the film lives up to expectations. Never has it been more appropriate to declare, "Off with his head!"

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing Dev Patel wearing a crown

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing the character of the Green Knight

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing the Green Knight on horseback riding into King Arthur's courtsing into

All film images courtesy of IMDb.com, and as used in other reviews of the movie

 

Julian Harrison

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23 September 2021

Dragons, heroes, myths and magic

Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.

A love story

One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.

Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven
Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven, with the earthly paradise beneath, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections

Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose
Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose, with the Holy Trinity and the orders of angels among the petals, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 185r

Stories of famous women

In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.

Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine
Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine, with ships in the foreground, in Christine de Pizan, 'L'Épître Othéa', The Book of the Queen (France, Paris, c. 1410-c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 140r

Travellers’ tales

Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.

Scenes of legendary people
Cyclops eating raw fish, blemmyae watched by Mandeville who is writing in a book, and men with eyes and mouth in their backs, Mandeville’s Travels (England, 1400-1450): Harley MS 3954, f. 42r

A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.

Illustrations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain, King Arthur and Guinevere at table; below, Gawain holds an axe and the Green Knight, on a green horse, holds his own severed head, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, Midlands, 1375-1424): Cotton MS Nero A x/2, f. 94v

A lovable rogue

Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.

Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck
Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck, Roman de Renart (France or England, 14th century): Add MS 15229, f. 13r

Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.

Frontispiece to The History of Reynard the Foxe, with the title and floral borders
Frontispiece to William Caxton (transl.), The History of Reynard the Foxe, with woodcut borders and ornamental initial letters designed by William Morris (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892): British Library C.43.f.3.

Discover more medieval stories

Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.

Dragons heroes myths and magic cover

But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here. 

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14 September 2021

700th anniversary of the death of Dante

14 September 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (14 September 1321), author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian narrates the poet's spiritual journey from the frozen depths of hell to the cosmic heights of heaven, while exploring themes such as sin, virtue and transcendent love.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.

Who was Dante?

Dante Alighieri was born in around 1265 into a prominent family in Florence. 13th-century Florence was an up-and-coming metropolis, with a growing economy based largely on the textile trade and banking. Yet the politics of the city was torn apart by conflict between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante’s family sided with the Guelphs. This political setting played an important part in shaping both Dante’s life and poetry.

Dante encountered another of his great influences when, at the age of nine, he went to a party at the house of an eight-year-old Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari. By his own later account, Dante instantly fell in love with her. But Dante’s love for Beatrice could never be realised: both were placed in arranged marriages by their families, and Beatrice died when she was only twenty-five. Although they only met a few times, Beatrice held a tremendous power over Dante’s imagination. His love for her would remain a central theme in his poetry throughout his life.

Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels
Beatrice in a mandorla carried by angels, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 111v

As a young man, Dante started writing poetry. His first collection of poems, the Vita Nuova (New Life), completed around 1293, narrates the story of his love for Beatrice. He also became involved in Florentine politics, serving as a soldier, public office holder and ambassador in support of the Guelph cause. However, in 1302 he fell foul of the city’s political intrigues and was sentenced to exile from Florence. Banished from his home city, Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, an epic poem in Italian in which he wove together his ideas about philosophy, theology, politics and love into an incredible cosmic journey.

Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile
Dante being expelled from Florence and writing the Divine Comedy in exile, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 159r

What is the Divine Comedy about?

The Divine Comedy recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God. The poem is divided into three books, one for each of these afterlife realms. It begins with Dante wandering lost and downhearted in a forest, a metaphor for his exile. There he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who reveals that he has been sent by Beatrice to help Dante by guiding him on a spiritual journey.

First Virgil takes Dante through the nine circles of hell, where they see all kinds of gruesome punishments inflicted on sinners. Many of the sinners are identified as real people. For example, in the second circle of hell, Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, people guilty of the sin of lust being battered around by a ferocious wind. There Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, a woman who had an adulterous affair with her lover Paulo before they were both murdered by her jealous husband in around 1285. Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he faints with pity.

Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers
Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, with Francesca and Paulo at the right, and Dante fainting in the centre, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 10r

Many of the souls that they encounter belong to people who Dante regarded as corrupt political figures. For example, in the ninth circle of hell, where treacherous souls are imprisoned in a lake of ice, Dante and Virgil witnesses Count Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri. Both were major political players in 13th-century Pisa. After Ruggieri seized power in 1289, he imprisoned Ugolino with his children and grandchildren in a tower where they starved to death. Dante regarded both men’s abuse of power as leading to this horrific event, for which they now suffer eternal torment.

Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp
Dante and Virgil witness Count Ugolino gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri's scalp, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 58v

At the centre of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, a three-headed speechless monster. In his three mouths he chews on the three greatest traitors of human history who, according to Dante, are Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayor of Christ.

Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below
Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, with traitors frozen in a lake of ice below, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 58r

After they leave hell, Dante and Virgil move on to purgatory, which is represented as a mountain which souls must climb. Here, the souls work to purge themselves of the sins they have committed in life so that they can enter heaven. The mountain of purgatory is divided into seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory
Dante and Virgil follow a group of souls towards the mountain of Purgatory, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Naples, c. 1370: Add MS 19587, f. 63r

At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, or Garden of Eden. Here Dante witnesses a procession of biblical figures and a chariot drawn by griffins, in which Beatrice rides. She and Dante have an emotional reunion and she chastises him for letting his life go off course.

The heavenly procession of biblical figures and griffins pulling a chariot
The heavenly procession, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r

From here, Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide and together they ascend into heaven. Following the classical and medieval astronomic model, Dante’s heaven is divided into concentric spheres with the earth at the centre. The first seven spheres are each governed by one of the seven classical ‘planets’, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In each of these spheres, Dante and Beatrice meet blessed souls and learn about different kinds of virtue.

Diagram of the spheres of heaven
Diagram of the spheres of heaven, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 128v

After making their way through the spheres of the planets, Beatrice and Dante come to the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by the sphere of the moving stars or Primum Mobile, and then the highest heaven, the Empyrean. Here they leave the physical world behind and enter a heaven of pure radiant light, filled with intellect, love and happiness. The Empyrean contains a huge celestial rose, where all the blessed souls reside, and where Dante witnesses a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, who are seated within the Celestial Rose, surrounded by various saints
Beatrice (in pink) and Dante (in blue) before the Celestial Rose, which contains the Virgin and Child surrounded by various saints, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Siena, 1444-c. 1450 : Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 187r

Finally, Dante is able to witness the eternal light of God, the ultimate goal of his journey. He feels himself powerfully moved by God’s love, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante witnessing God
Dante witnessing God, from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy made in Emilia or Veneto, c. 1340: Egerton MS 943, f. 186r

Dante completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, and died only about a year later in 1321. His work quickly gained popularity and survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, some of which are richly illustrated like the ones pictured in this blogpost. The tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy continued into the modern period as you can discover on the British Library’s European Collections blog.

If this has whetted your appetite, you can read The Divine Comedy in both the original Italian and in English translation on the Digital Dante website. You can also find out more about our amazing holdings of Dante material at the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30). And you can come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery.

Eleanor Jackson

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