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

29 January 2023

Locating the earthly paradise

Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by the serpent with a female torso; in the architectonic border is a scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v

As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers drawn on the central upper part of the Psalter Map.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r

The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.

Latin text of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies with a diagram of the T.O map: Asia at the top, 'Europa' on the lower left and Africa on the lower right.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v

Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Alexander visiting the gates of earthly paradise receiving a golden apple as a tribute.

Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r

According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.

An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:

‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,

Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –

For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’

(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)

Three lines from the Buik off King Allexander the Conqueroure, quoted in the blogpost text above in Scots.

Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).

Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise, an angel flies overhead.
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v

Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.

Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability. 

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Giulia Gilmore

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28 January 2023

Three Alexander the Great manuscripts newly digitised

Our current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (closing soon on 19 February!), displays striking images of Alexander in medieval manuscripts of his legendary life. Many of these are already fully digitised, including high-status works of art like the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book and other superbly-illustrated Alexander legends in the British Library's collections.

miniature showing knight wearing armour and a crown on horseback fighting charge at three small dragons. The knight carries a spear

Alexander fighting dragons, in the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book (Rouen 1444–1445): Royal 15 E VI, f, 21r

Left. A man seated, wearing blue robes and a black hat, a young child holding a school book stands before him

Alexander taught by Aristotle in the schoolroom, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–c. 1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v

Manuscript page featuring two miniatues. The top one shows a knight on horseback charging at a group of 6 winged dragons. The lower image shows the same knight on the same horse but this time charging at a herd of several boar like monsters

Alexander fighting dragons and monsters, in Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 67v

In preparation for the exhibition, we have digitised three more of our illustrated Alexander manuscripts, so that, in addition to the pages on display in the exhibition, all the images and accompanying text can be viewed online. One of the newly-digitised items is an early collection of Latin works; the others are French versions of Alexander’s life story, as told by the Roman historian, Quintus Curtius Rufus.

Royal MS 13 A I: an Alexander collection from 11th-century England

This small book preserves four early Latin texts relating to Alexander the Great, including Julius Valerius’s Historia Alexandri Magni, translated from the Greek, together with fictional correspondence between Alexander and his teacher, Aristotle, and with the Indian Brahmin, Dindimus. The only illustration, on the opening page, is an early drawing of the coronation of Alexander by the personified figure of Philosophy.

Two figure robed in green. The left figure is femal and standing. She is anointing the seated figure on the right. The seated figure is male. He wears a crown and holds and orb and septre

Alexander is anointed by the female personification of Philosophy (England, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

Two manuscripts of the Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: in the 15th century, the Portuguese humanist scholar Vasco da Lucena compiled his account in French of Alexander’s life (largely a translation of the Historia Alexandri Magni of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus), which he dedicated to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477). The majority of the illustrations accompanying his work focus on violent confrontations between Alexander and his enemies, in particular his defeat of Darius, his capture and subjugation of cities on his route, and his brutality towards suspected traitors.

Royal MS 17 F I: a manuscript of the Lucena translation from Lille and Bruges

This copy of Lucena’s Livre des Fais was made by Jean Duchesne of Lille and illustrated in Bruges in the 1470s. It has 9 large miniatures with decorated borders and 11 smaller images within the text.

Royal_ms_17_f_i_f055r

The capture of the family of Darius; the five figures in a pavilion in the background represent his mother, wife, two daughters and son; Alexander is in the foreground in gold armour on a black horse, pursuing the Persians, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 55r

A knight in armour riding a heron

Detail of a border in Royal MS 17 F I, f. 40r

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Manuscript page featuring a depiction of a city under siege

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Royal MS 20 C III: the Lucena translation in another copy from Bruges

Curtius’s history of Alexander in French translation gained popularity among the 15th-century French-speaking nobility. A number of illustrated copies were produced in commercial ateliers to satisfy demand. The opening miniature in this large book produced in Bruges in the 1480s imagines Alexander’s birth in a truly imperial setting, with the furnishing, fabrics and luxurious garments reflecting the style of the magnificent court of the dukes of Burgundy at the time.

Scene showing a woman in bed, she has just given birth. She is being attended by a group of women. In the foreground two women take care of the baby. The the background a building is on fire

The birth of Alexander, with two golden eagles perched on the palace roof and the Temple of Artemis burning in the background as signs of future greatness, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant (Bruges, c. 1485–1490): Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

The exquisitely-painted trompe-l’oeil borders, with realistic birds, flowers and fruit, contrast with the rather violent subject matter of some of the images.

Scene showing a city in the background. In the foreground people from the city are surrendering to an advancing army
The people of the fortress of Celaenae surrender to Alexander and his army: Royal MS 20 C III, f. 42r

Manuscript page. Miniature in top right hand side showing a crowd watching as two men are being beheaded by a figure swinging a sword
Cleander and other traitors are beheaded:Royal MS 20 C III, f. 238r

Come and see these beautiful manuscripts as well as many others in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023 at the British Library, or explore more on our Alexander the Great website.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors

 

Chantry Westwell

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24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).

This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.

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