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 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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20 January 2023

Re-imagining the Ebstorf map

The historical Alexander the Great travelled as far as north-west India, but the mythical Alexander the Great travelled much further, journeying into the unknown as he sought the edge of the world and Paradise beyond. During his mythical quest, Alexander encountered a wide-range of people and creatures. Some of these tales were depicted on the Ebstorf map.

Originally produced around 1300 by the nuns of the monastery of Ebstorf in northern Germany, the Ebstorf map with its enormous dimensions (over 3m x 3m and made up of thirty parchment sheets) was the largest world map known from the Middle-Ages. It was destroyed in 1943 by Allied bombing of Hanover during World War II. The image shown here is a digital facsimile created in 2008 at the Leuphana Universität Lüneburg from images of the original.

 Photo of a reproduction of the Ebstorf Map

The Ebstorf Map (reproduction). © Kloster Ebstorf, image used with permission from https://www.leuphana.de/ebskart

There are 2,345 entries on the Ebstorf map, 845 of which are illustrated, and 17 relate explicitly to Alexander the Great and the Alexander Romance

The British Library has collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the Ebstorf map. A team of students and graduates participated in the ‘Escape Pod’ incubator to create a 3D version of the map, using the digital facsimile created by Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.

The interactive map, created in Unreal Engine, has been set in a fictional medieval scriptorium to suggest the tone of the space in which it was created. All aspects of the room were imagined, researched and created by the students at Escape.

Still of the interactive map experience, view of the scriptorium in which the map is placed. Stone walls, and floors. Tall bookcases with a ladder. Candles on tables. In the centre of the room is a table

Still of the interactive map experience, showing the scriptorium in which the map is made

The interactive map has fifteen clickable points of interest, a mix of buildings, mythical landmarks and characters. These are all created in the same style of artwork as the original map. When a point is selected it prompts a small 3D model to pop up with text and a voice recording, presenting details associated with this area of the map. All of the fifteen points relate to Alexander the Great.

Still of the interactive map experience, view of the framed map on a table. Glowing white dots can be seen on the map, these indicate the 15 clickable points. The map is in a wooden frame, there are writing materials scattered across the table

Still of the interactive map experience, with a view of the framed map on a table. Glowing white dots can be seen on the map, indicating the 15 clickable points.

All the animations at each of the 15 clickable points on the map were carefully crafted to ensure the style and artwork was in keeping with the original designs created by the nuns of Ebstorf. 

Still of the interactive map experience, view of a one of the clickable points featuring Gog and Magog.

Still of the interactive map experience, with a view of a one of the clickable points featuring Gog and Magog

The British Library and Escape Studios are delighted to offer a free download of the interactive map via the Alexander the Great: Making of a Myth website

A facsimile of the Ebstorf map is also featured in the 'Mythical Quest' section of our current major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth , open until 19 February 2023. Tickets are available to book in advance online or on the door, 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.

 

Yrja Thorsdottir

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15 January 2023

Wheel of approval

Medieval rulers often issued documents, such as privileges, grants and mercies, to assert their sovereignty. Castile was no exception to this rule. The most solemn type of document produced by the medieval Castilian chancery was known as the ‘privilegio rodado’ (literally, ‘privilege with a wheel’). One such charter is a confirmation of a grant of lands issued on 30 December 1254 by the Castilian royal couple Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) and Violante of Aragon (b. 1236, d. 1300/1). This charter (Add Ch 24804) has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon, with the wheel at its centre and with a leaden seal affixed at the bottom

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon: Add Ch 24804

Alfonso X’s interest in books, scholarship and the promotion of arts, history, law and literature was well known by his contemporaries, so much so that his patronage earned him the moniker ‘The Learned’ or ‘The Wise’. He had married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King Jaume I of Aragon and Violante of Hungary, in 1246, when he was still heir to the throne. Together, Alfonso and Violante ruled for over thirty years, although their marriage became strained after the death of their heir, Fernando de la Cerda, in 1275.

An illuminated image showing Alfonso X on the left, Violante of Aragon in the middle, and their son, Fernando de la Cerda, all sitting on thrones

Alfonso X and Violante of Aragon with their son, Fernando de la Cerda: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Códices, L. 1002, f. 23r

The recently digitized ‘privilegio rodado’ was co-issued by both monarchs, which means that they granted it jointly. Both their names, Alfonso and Violante, are highlighted equally in the charter. Moreover, the use of the diplomatic formula ‘reigning as one’ (‘regnante en uno’) emphasised the importance of the female members of the royal family, including Violante and the royal daughters in the issuing clause of the charter. Hence, the use of the phrase ‘reigning as one’ reflected the participation of both members of the royal couple in the affairs of the kingdom.

A detail from the charter issued by Alfonso and Violante

‘Rey don Alfonso regnante en uno con la Reyna doña Yoland mi mugier et con mis ffijas’ ('King Don Alfonso reigning as one with Queen doña Violante, my wife, and my daughters'): detail of Add Ch 24804

King Alfonso X regulated extensively the structure of the ‘privilegio’ and how it needed to be granted, as described in the ‘Siete Partidas’, one of several legal codes produced throughout his reign. (You can read more about this treatise in our blogpost on the law-code of Alfonso.)

Detail from an illuminated manuscript, showing King Alfonso, sitting on a throne on the left, dictating to a scribe, the middle of three figures on the right

King Alfonso dictates to a scribe: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

In the ‘Siete Partidas’, Alfonso X established the various elements that ensured the legal validity of the ‘privilegio’, and which bestowed it with an impressive appearance. The most striking element was the ‘signo rodado’, a wheel at the very centre of the charter. King Alfonso details in the ‘Siete Partidas’ that this should be ‘a flourish, in the shape of a circle’, which ought to include in the middle ‘the name of the king who bestows the grant, and outside of the latter should be signed by the name of the standard-bearer and of the royal steward’ (Siete Partidas, Partida III, Title XVIII, Law II).

In the inner circle of our charter we can read: ‘SIGNO DEL REY DON ALFONSO’, that is, the sign of King Don Alfonso.

In the outer circle: ‘DON IVAN GARCIA MAYORDOMO DE LA CORTE DEL REY LA CONFIRMA + EL ALFEREZIA DEL REY VAGA’, that is, the steward and the standard-bearer of the King confirm it.

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter: Add Ch 24804

Other elements that bestowed the ‘privilegio’ with legal validity were the ‘chi-ro’ or ‘christogram’ at the beginning of the charter, as well as the extensive witness list of lay nobles and ecclesiastical magnates. In this instance they included the Moorish kings of Granada, Murcia and Niebla. Once written, the charter was sealed with a leaden seal, affixed by a silken cord. The original silk threats have survived on our document, together with the seal that shows the arms of Castile and Leon, namely a castle and a lion.

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant: Add Ch 24804

Throughout the Middle Ages, charters, grants and documents were dated using different dating systems, In Castile, the customary system was the ‘Era Hispánica’ or Spanish Era. However, the dating clause could also include a reference to an extraordinary or unusual event which happened in that year. In this case, the charter is also dated ‘in the year in which Edward, first-born son and heir of King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272), was knighted by King Alfonso X in Burgos’, that is, in 1254. Lord Edward, son of Henry III (and the future King Edward I), had travelled to Burgos to be knighted before his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, half-sister of Alfonso X, King of Castile. Hundreds of people gathered in Burgos for that occasion.

The dating clause of the charter

The dating clause of the charter, which reads: ‘en el anno que don Odoart ffijo primero et heredero del Rey Henrric de Anglatierra recebió cavallería en Burgos del rey don Alfonso’: Add Ch 24804

The striking wheel, the magnificently preserved seal and the original silk threads make this charter a particularly fine example of a ‘privilegio rodado’, and a rare survival within the British Library’s collections.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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