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

30 July 2022

A tour of the Tower

Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?

Miniature of Charles, duke of Orléans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, with the city and London Bridge in the background

The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.

Drawing of medieval London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, enclosed by the city wall

London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.

Annotated image of the Tower of London and London Bridge in the background, from an illuminated manuscript made c. 1483

The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.

To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.

The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.

The White Tower of the Tower of London today

The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia

For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 July 2022

Masters of gold tooling

‘Gold is gold is gold’ it is said, but the Library’s current Gold exhibition shows that this is not the whole story. In book bindings, it appears as paint, lacquer, powder and leaf and was (and is) used all over the world. The more pure (and expensive) the metal, the less likely it is to tarnish. Light is the catalyst which brings such a decorated binding to life. The covers glow in the restricted light levels of a gallery display case today, just as they once did in the candlelight of the medieval royal court, on a church lectern or in a scholar’s study.

An illustration of an 18th-century bookbinder at work
A bookbinder working on a gold tooled binding, India, 1798-1804: Add Or 1111

There are many reasons why such cost and effort should be expended but a celebration of the wealth and discernment of the owner, the skill of the craftsman and honouring the text or manuscript contained within surely played a part. Bound books which were destined to be gifts were frequently ornamented with gold.

Arguably, the technique that creates the most astonishing result is tooling in gold. This is achieved by impressing a heated engraved brass tool into the surface of leather through a thin layer of gold. The skill needed is considerable, as I learned during my first attempt. The temperature was far too hot which resulted in me tooling through the leather into the workbench beneath! To avoid expensive errors like this, apprentice bookbinders were required to train for many years (usually seven in England).

Gold tooled binding motifs
An enlarged pointillé motif popularised by the Maître Doreur, and a solid flower motif used by Cobden-Sanderson

One of the spectacular gold-tooled bindings in the exhibition is by the 17th-century French binder known as the Maître Doreur (C.14.c.12). In some countries, practitioners specialised either in the structure of the book or on the decoration. In France the term for the latter was ‘doreur’ (which references ‘or’, the French for gold). The fact that this binder was given the epithet Maître Doreur (i.e. Master gold tooler) indicates the level of his expertise. The delicately tooled motifs comprising dots and coloured onlays repeat in a hypnotic fashion until the entire glowing surface is covered. This use of tiny dots of gold leaf to form a pattern is known as pointillé technique. It is hard to calculate how long such work took. It would be many hours, if not days.

Binding by the Maitre Doreur intricately tooled in gold with tiny 'pointillé' dots
Gold-tooled pointillé binding by the Maître Doreur, France, 17th century: C.14.c.12

Another beautiful example of gold-tooling in the exhibition is an Arts and Crafts binding by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (1840–1922), who may be considered the ‘Maître Doreur’ of the late 19th century (C.68.h.17). Gold was the key to his decorative schemes on goatskin bindings, but solid motifs were preferred to the pointillé favoured by the earlier binder. Lettering in gold was particularly important. Only four tools comprise this all over pattern.

Gold was often the first choice of decoration for a binding intended to be a gift, as this was to Cobden-Sanderson’s daughter, Stella Gabrielle. The binder wrote:

‘This book, Stella, I was binding when you were born, and being one of the noblest books I know I covered it with such glory as I could of roses and of stars and set your name in the midst and gave it to you.’

What a way to mark one’s birth day!

Cobden Sanderson binding tooled in gold with roses and stars and the name 'Stella Gabrielle'
Gold-tooled binding by Cobden-Sanderson, London, late 19th century: C.68.h.17
 
Portrait of Cobden-Sanderson
Portrait of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson by William Rothenstein, 1916 (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons CC0 License)

Cobden-Sanderson’s apprentice, Douglas Cockerell taught at London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts. He passed on his expertise to promising younger craftsmen including the founders of the Sangsorksi and Sutcliffe workshop (established in 1901), Francis Sangorski (1875–1912) and George Sutcliffe (1878–1943). They created the beautiful jewelled binding on a copy of Spenser’s Epithalamion and Amoretti (C.109.p.20) which appears in the exhibition.

Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding tooled with gold floral patterns and set with jewels
Gold-tooled and jewelled binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, London, 1903: C.109.p.20

 

Detail of the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding, showing the rose motif in the centre surrounded by jewels
Enlargement of the binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe: C.109.p.20, detail

In the Middle Ages, ‘treasure bindings' on religious manuscripts sometimes incorporated jewels with lustrous precious metals (you can read about them in our article on medieval bindings). Sangorski and Sutcliffe revived this style but used it on secular texts, which were frequently poetic or exotic. Gold and gems make ideal partners on a surface due to the reflective nature of both materials, as can be seen on the binding on display. The success of the trend inspired the creation of a stupendous binding on an engraved copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam featuring over a thousand jewels and a hundred square feet of gold leaf. The latter became perhaps the most famous bookbinding in the world after it was lost on the Titanic and a recreation was destroyed in the Blitz. A third version is in the British Library.

Photo of Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, with rows of men working on book bindings
Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s workshop, 1923 (Source: Shepherd's bindery, which incorporated Sangorski & Sutcliffe bindery)

Gold can contribute to the all-over splendour of a binding in other ways including metal ‘furniture’ (e.g. bosses and corner-pieces) and gilded edges on text blocks. Gilding protects the contents of the book from moisture and dust.

An ornate gold book clasp with a figure of Christ
Gold clasp on a Dutch Bible, 18th century: Davis 672

It can be gauffered, i.e. further decorated using tools which catch the light. An article in The Bookbinder of 1888 notes that 'a gilt edge is as necessary to a well-bound book as the gold chain is to an alderman's robes.'

Three books lined up next to each other with their fore-edges towards us, displaying elaborate gold edges
Gilt and gauffered edges from Davis 239, Davis 820, and C.46.f.5

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

P. J. M. Marks
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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.

18 July 2022

The golden splendour of the Queen Mary Psalter

Our Gold exhibition includes some of the most justly famous illuminated manuscripts in the Library. One of these, the Queen Mary Psalter, is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Extraordinarily, all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Illuminated figures against a gold incised background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. We don’t know for whom it was originally created, as there are no contemporary ownership inscriptions or other clues such as coats of arms that would identify the original patron. Nevertheless, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations are certainly grand enough to have been for a royal or aristocratic owner. The manuscript later belonged to Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), from whom it takes its name. It was presented to her in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England.

You can hear Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, talking about the Queen Mary Psalter in the Gold Exhibition Virtual Private View which is available to watch on the British Library Player (starting at 10:28):

For the Gold exhibition, we exhibit an opening which forms a sort of diptych of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, placed together after a blank recto to form a coordinated pairing. Together they provide a commentary on the ancestry and family of Christ. 

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, with fine miniatures in colours and gold
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

The Tree of Jesse on the left begins at the bottom with the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David. A large branch growing out of his torso curves around forming roundels in which his crowned descendants are seated on branches in the central and to either side of the middle king. Four figures with round hats stand laterally above and below the kings, perhaps the four major prophets. The only descendant who is identifiable by an attribute is David, who is playing his harp, directly above Jesse.

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesse lying at the bottom with a tree growing from his body, and figures in roundels within the tree
The Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

The iconography of the Jesse Tree is derived from Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root’ (egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet, Isaiah 11:1), in which the virga or rod is interpreted as a reference to the virgo, or Virgin. However, in this instance the Virgin is not included at the top of the tree, as is usual, but rather she is featured on the opposite page with a more unusual Psalter subject, the Holy Kinship.

Miniature of the Holy Kinship, with four levels each with a row of figures
The Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The depiction of the Holy Kinship on the right is shown in registers that are aligned with the levels of Jesse and the kings in circular branches in the Tree of Jesse. At the bottom is St Anne, by tradition the mother of the Virgin, with each of her three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. These couples are not identified by a label or caption, but their identities are clear from the figures in the register above them, namely their respective daughters, all called Mary. In this second register the three Marian half-sisters appear with their respective husbands. They are each labelled with their names written beneath them (rather helpfully, as Mary I, Mary II and Mary III).

In the next register the Virgin (labelled Maria Virgo) holds the Christ Child, next to St James the Less, in the centre, one of the sons of Mary Cleophas (II), and with St James the Great, to the right, the son of Mary Salome (III). In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world, next to the other two sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles (Sts Simon and Jude), and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome to the right.

Illuminated figure against a gold and blue chequerboard background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

Throughout, the figures are set on a glimmering gold backgrounds, on the right, with incised with intricate patterns, or alternating with coloured diamonds or squares.

For more on the textual basis for and other manuscript examples, see our previous blogpost on the Holy Kinship. To see this interesting pairing in person you can book tickets to the Gold exhibition. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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.