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

16 June 2021

Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back

Vengeful, merciless and brutally violent... yes that’s right, we’re talking about medieval bunnies. Rabbits can often be found innocently frolicking in the decorated borders or illuminations of medieval manuscripts, but sometimes, for reasons unknown, these adorable fluffy creatures turn into stone-cold killers. These darkly humorous images of medieval killer bunnies still strike a chord with modern viewers, always proving a hit on social media and popularised by Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Beast of Caerbannog, ‘the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!’.

While re-cataloguing the Arnstein Passional, made at Arnstein Abbey in Germany around the 1170s, for the Harley cataloguing project, we spotted a particularly early example of killer bunny imagery (could it be the earliest known?). This decorated letter ‘T’ is being used as a gallows on which two rabbits or hares hang a human hunter. His identity is made clear by the hunting horn slung over his shoulder. The rabbits stand on their hindlegs and point with their front paws as if jeering in sinister glee.

Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’
Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’. The Arnstein Passional, Arnstein, Germany, c. 1170s: Harley MS 2801, f. 151r

This image gives us a clue about why medieval artists showed rabbits behaving so violently. In real life, rabbits and hares are docile prey animals. But in decorated initials and marginalia, medieval artists often depicted ‘the world turned upside down’, where roles are reversed and the impossible becomes the norm. So here, rabbits are violent hunters hellbent on punishing anyone who has committed crimes against rabbit-kind.

Perhaps the most elaborate example of the killer bunny theme appears in the Smithfield Decretals, illuminated in London in the 1340s. This manuscript contains multiple series of marginal scenes in which stories unfold over consecutive pages like a comic strip. In this series of scenes, we see how a group of giant beefy rabbits get their gruesome revenge on a hunter. First a rabbit archer shoots the hunter in the back, then the rabbits tie him up and haul him before a rabbit judge to be tried. After a guilty verdict is delivered, the ruthless rabbits drag the hunter away and behead him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 59v-61v

Not content with inflicting punishment on the hunter, the fluffy ruffians then set their sights on a hound. Hounds were widely used for hunting rabbits and hares, making them prime targets for bunny vengeance. In a series of scenes mirroring the previous ones, the rabbits are shown shooting the hound with arrows, tying him up, trying him at rabbit court, carting him away and then hanging him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hound
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hound. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 62r-64r

Another rabbit goes hunting for hounds in this Book of Hours made in England in the 1320s. On one page the rabbit sets out with a full quiver of arrows, blowing on a hunting horn. On the other side of the page he returns triumphant with his arrows used up and a small hound strung up on the end of his bow.

A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry
A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry. A Book of Hours, England, 1320s: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v

Some rather more chivalrous rabbits engage in knightly combat with hounds in the margins of the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, made in Metz in France between 1302 and 1303. Here they take up lances, swords and shields and do battle. In one instance a bunny rides on the back of a snail while the opposing hound rides on the back of a bunny who looks like he’s just noticed with some puzzlement that he’s fighting on the wrong side.

A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances
A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 294r
 
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 181r

But the rabbits don’t stop at conquering their traditional foes. Having got a taste for warfare, they are ready to take on any adversary. Like the Beast of Caerbannog, these savage rodents could strike fear into the heart of even the bravest knight.

A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs
A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add MS 49622, f. 149v
 
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields. The Maastricht Hours, Liège, Belgium: : Stowe MS 17, f. 240v

They rampage through the manuscript margins, wielding axes and taking on anyone unfortunate enough to cross them.

An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king
An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add 49622, fol. 13v
 
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound. John le Breton, Treatise on the Laws of England, England, c. 1305: Harley MS 324, f. 3v 

Given the murderous reputation of medieval rabbits, the demonic expression on the face of this bunny baker raises alarming questions about the nature of his baked goods. Surely those aren’t human pies... are they?

A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven
A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven. Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r 

Luckily, unlike their counterparts in medieval marginalia, 21st-century rabbits are sweet and harmless. But these medieval images remind us to always treat rabbits with respect – you never know when they might decide it’s time to strike back!

For more medieval rabbits, check out our previous blogpost on Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre. If you’d like to read more about the strange world of medieval marginalia, take a look at past blogposts such as Ludicrous figures in the margin, 'Virile, if somewhat irresponsible' design, and the ever-popular Knight v Snail.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 June 2021

Who should we trust?

On Saturday 12 June, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator (20:00–21:00 BST). In one segment of the programme, Stewart encounters two 'unreliable' medieval manuscripts at the British Library, in the company of Dr Hetta Howes and curator Julian Harrison. The manuscripts in question contain copies of Geoffrey of Monmouth's infamous History of the Kings of Britain and the dubious Travels of Sir John Mandeville. In both cases, Stewart Lee and his guests use these narratives to interrogate what it is to tell the truth, questioning where does fact end and fiction begin. (Stewart also brought along his O-Level History dissertation which analysed Geoffrey of Monmouth — will the programme reveal his final grade?)

A manuscript page written in brown ink, with pencil drawings of towers and other buildings in the lower margin

A 14th-century manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, with a marginal illustration of London: Royal MS 13 A III, f. 14r

Here at the British Library we look after several manuscripts of both the History of the Kings of Britain and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The first of these works was composed in the 1130s and survives in more than 200 medieval copies. Geoffrey claimed that he was translating into Latin an ancient book in the British language that had been given to him by his friend Walter Map: or was he? Mandeville's Travels in turn is a 14th-century travelogue, in which its narrator, a certain Sir John Mandeville, ventured from Europe to the Near East, Africa and Asia, having wondrous encounters along the way. One of our favourite versions of the Travels comprises a series of illustrations made in 15th-century Bohemia, which shows Mandeville setting out on his journey and reaching Byzantium and beyond.

A manuscript illustration showing a boat containing four figures, setting out to sea, with a castle in the left background and a hilly landscape in the rear right

Sir John Mandeville setting out on his journey: Add MS 24189, f. 3v

It was great fun to record this programme with Stewart and Hetta. Listen out for the broadcast this Saturday evening. Will the truth get in the way of a good story?

Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator is on BBC Radio 4, 12 June, 20:00 (GMT), available in the UK only.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

10 June 2021

Lewis of Caerleon’s eclipse tables in the spotlight

On the morning of 10 June, large parts of the Northern Hemisphere will see a total or partial solar eclipse, when the shadow of the Moon obscures the Sun. Nowadays we can easily find details about eclipses online, but medieval astronomers had to make complicated calculations. An impressive gathering of eclipse calculations survives in the most complete collection of the works of  Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician and astronomer. The manuscript, made under his close supervision between 1485 and 1495, is dedicated largely to predicting future lunar and solar eclipses. The British Library acquired the manuscript for the nation in 2020, and has since digitised it in full (Add MS 89442).

The opening page of a work on eclipses by Lewis of Caerleon, with a large blue initial with red penwork decoration in the left upper corner and astronomical diagrams on the right side.

The opening of Lewis of Caerleon’s work on eclipses (England, c. 1485–95): Add MS 89442, p. 39

Lewis of Caerleon made his eclipse tables in the 1480s. They are based on complicated mathematical exercises and provide exact details on the magnitude and duration of eclipses.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for solar eclipses written in tables with Arabic numerals in black and red ink.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for solar eclipses made in 1482: Add MS 89442, p. 41

What makes Lewis’s eclipse calculations remarkable is that he made some while incarcerated in the Tower of London. He had been personal physician to Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437–1492), Queen of England, and to Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509) and her son, the future King Henry VII (r. 1485–1509). In 1484, his loyalty to the Tudors caused King Richard III (r. 1483–1485) to order his arrest. Lewis remained imprisoned at the Tower until 1485. In his volume of collected works, he explains that his original eclipse calculations were lost when he was in prison, but that he composed new tables at the Tower. His new computations resulted in new values for his eclipse tables.

A note by Lewis of Caerleon on tables that he made while incarcerated at the Tower of London in black ink.

In a note at the foot of this page, Lewis Caerleon refers to eclipse tables that were taken from him at his arrest in 1484, and new ones that he made while he was incarcerated at the Tower of London: Add MS 89442, p. 65

At the Tower, Lewis probably had access to scientific books, enabling him to consult pre-existing eclipse tables and to expand upon these with his own computations. He was also able to measure the accuracy of his calculations. According to another manuscript of his works (Royal MS 12 G I), he observed an eclipse from the Tower of London on the afternoon of 16 March 1485. His collected works (Add MS 89442) contain detailed calculations for this solar eclipse. In observing it, Lewis may have been able to measure its different phases by using a simple stick, if the weather was not too cloudy.

A calculation by Lewis of Caerleon for the solar eclipse on 16 March 1485, written in two columns.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for a solar eclipse on 16 March 1485: Add MS 89442, p. 71

Solar and lunar eclipses were considered important events in the Middle Ages. They were commonly believed to have an effect on people’s health and fortune, and to anticipate major world events. However, Lewis of Caerleon did not attach any astrological significance to eclipses. His main interest, it seems, was the study and computation of the ‘mechanics’ of the universe. He donated other copies of his eclipse tables to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and he provided detailed instructions to his readers on how they could calculate eclipses for themselves.

Lewis of Caerleon explains how to make eclipse tables, opening with a large blue initial with red penwork decoration and a title written in red ink.

Lewis of Caerleon explains how to make eclipse tables using the diameter of the Sun and Moon: Add MS 89442, p. 42

Lewis of Caerleon was not the first British astronomer to calculate future eclipses. In 1380, John Somer, a Franciscan friar of Bridgwater, made predictions about the times of future eclipses in his Kalendarium. He produced this work for his Provincial Minister, Thomas Kingsbury, at the request in turn of Joan of Kent (1326/1327–1385), mother of King Richard II.

Three circular diagrams in blue and gold for predictions for solar eclipses in the years 1431, 1433, and 1436.

Predictions for solar eclipses in the years 1431, 1433 and 1436 in a physician's folding almanac based on John Somer's Kalendarium (England, c. 1430–1431): Harley MS 937, f. 8r

In 1386, Nicholas of Lynn, a Carmelite friar, composed his own Kalendarium, at the request of John of Gaunt (1340–1399), Duke of Lancaster.

Seven rows of four circular diagrams in which blue to represent the shadows cast by the moon onto the sun in partial solar eclipses

Figures of solar eclipses from Nicholas of Lynn’s Kalendarium (England, 1387–15th century): Harley MS 1811, f. 30v

Similarly, another English astronomer known for his eclipse calculations is Richard of Thorpe, an Augustinian friar of York. Richard used the works of John Somer and Nicholas of Lynn for making a calendar for the Use of York for the years 1387–1462.

Eclipse tables of Richard of Thorpe in blue, green, purple, and red ink, with figures of solar eclipses in blue and gold in the right column.

Calendar, Use of York, with astronomical tables by Richard of Thorpe (England, c. 1430): Add MS 82946, f. 28v

Lewis of Caerleon was clearly familiar with the works of previous astronomers. He made clear that his calculations were based on those of leading English astronomers such as Simon Bredon (d. 1372), fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), Abbot of St Albans, and John Holbroke (d. 1437), proctor and chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He also drew upon the works of Arabic astronomers such as Al-Battānī (c. 858–929), and Jabir ibn Aflah (c. 1100–c. 1160).

A table of solar eclipses by Richard of Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon, written in black ink.

Tables for solar eclipses by Richard of Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, p. 67

Add MS 89442 is witness to the importance attributed to eclipses in the Middle Ages, as well as to the great skill of Lewis of Caerleon in making precise predictions of these events. The manuscript was acquired with the generous support of the Shaw Fund, the T. S. Blakeney Fund, the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library, the British Library Collections Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, and those who wish to remain anonymous.

 

We would like to thank Dr Laure Miolo, Munby Fellow in Bibliography, Cambridge University Library, for discussing her research with us. You can read more about Lewis of Caerleon’s manuscripts in her two-part blogpost (Part 1 and Part 2). 

Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval