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 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.

 

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24 June 2022

MP3

Some of you may have seen the exciting news that Trinity College Dublin has digitised its manuscript of the Book of St Albans by Matthew Paris. Initiatives of this kind whet the appetites of scholarly researchers and members of the public alike. We may not all have the opportunity to handle medieval manuscripts at first hand, but we always welcome the chance to see them up close in virtual form. Matthew Paris (d. around 1259) would have been proud as punch to see his work shared with so many people.

To celebrate this achievement, we thought we'd share with you another three manuscripts that were written and illustrated by Matthew Paris himself, all of which are held by the British Library (we're going to call them the MP3). We start by letting his elephant take a bow, which is found in the work known as 'Liber Additamentorum' (The Book of Additions), Cotton MS Nero D I. (All of the manuscripts we mention are available in full and for free online; no manuscripts were hurt in the writing of this blogpost.) We have written about this pachyderm before in our blogpost The Elephant at the Tower. The elephant was a gift to King Henry III of England (reigned 1216–1272) from Louis IX of France. Matthew had seen the animal in person, writing:

'About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight.'

The unnamed creature was said to be 10 years old, 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor. Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum contains this full-page illustration of the elephant, another version of which is found in a manuscript at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This begs the question, 'one trunk or two?'

Drawing of the elephant at the Tower of London by Matthew Paris

The elephant kept at the Tower of London, described and illustrated by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

Number 2 in our list of the famous MP3 is a map of Britain, drawn by Matthew Paris himself. It belongs with his Abbereviatio chronicorum, but was removed and bound separately in 1929 (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1). This map is effectively a gazetteer of 13th-century England, Wales and Scotland, drawn by someone who spent most of their life in St Albans and had no access to satellite mapping. Most notably to the modern eye, northern Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, Canterbury is located due South of London (and can be traced in a straight line via Newark, Doncaster and Durham to Newcastle, along the route of the East Coast mainline), and Mount Snowdon is represented by a sandcastle.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris

Map of Britain by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

And last, but not least, we have the autograph manuscript that contains Matthew's itinerary to Jerusalem and other maps, his Historia Anglorum, and the third part of his greatest historical work, the Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII). It's only by looking at this manuscript in the round that you get some sense of Matthew's wide range of interests, of his detailed chronicling activity, and of his artistic achievement. It's difficult to pick out any particular page for special attention — the candidates include his portraits of the kings of England and another map of Britain — but we have decided to go with the self-portrait of Matthew himself, portrayed kneeling before the Virgin and Child. Matthew Paris was not the most modest of men, to judge by his many writings. In this illustration he captures himself in a more suppliant pose, lying prostrate on the floor, but with his name picked out in blue and red capitals for the readers' attention. It's to this monk that we owe so many marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Miniature of the Virgin holding the birthday Jesus  with Matthew Paris lying at their feet

Miniature of the Virgin and Child, with a self-portrait by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

 

Julian Harrison

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22 June 2022

The Law Code of Alfonso X

Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon and Galicia from 1252 and 1284, was so renowned for his interest in books and scholarship that he was nicknamed ‘El Sabio’ (the Wise or Learned). He promoted and consolidated Spanish language in the kingdom, having astronomical, medical and scientific documents translated into the vernacular.

King Alfonso enthroned, holding a sword and a book surrounded by his seated subjects, with buildings in the background
King Alfonso enthroned, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X (Castile or Leon, 1250-1300): Add MS 20787, f. 1r

When he came to the throne in 1252 Alfonso found that much of the legislation in his newly-unified kingdom was from varied traditions, making it contradictory and sometimes unjust. He set to work to codify it in three major legal works. Alfonso’s Law Codes, laying out traditional laws and rights, pertaining to both the Church and State, had a profound influence on Spanish literature and culture from the earliest surviving Spanish chivalric tale, El Cavallero Cifar (c. 1300), to numerous plays of the Golden Age (16th-17th centuries).

King Alfonso in a curtained room dictates to three seated figures, one of whom, a scribe, is writing in a book
King Alfonso dictates to a scribe, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

The king also promoted the study of law at the University of Salamanca, granting two new prestigious positions for professors of law, who were to be given the title Cavallero and Señor de Leyes, along with special privileges including being allowed to enter the presence of emperors, kings and princes at any time. One section of the law code was devoted to the educational ethos and curriculum of universities.

The king stands with courtiers, instructing workmen with tools who are building a church
The king instructs workmen who are building a church, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 75r

During Alfonso’s reign a workshop under his patronage produced a number of highly illuminated manuscripts, the most famous being the Cantigas de Santa Maria which contain 400 songs about the miracles of the Virgin Mary in Galician-Portuguese with musical annotation. Four copies survive, now located in libraries in Spain and Italy. In the same workshop a manuscript of the Primera Partida, the first book of Alfonso's most famous law codes known as the Siete Partidas, was produced. It is the earliest known copy, dated to second half of the 13th century, and is now in the British Library (Add MS 20787).

Initial ‘A’ with King Alfonso kneeling before an altar and presenting a book to God, whose face appears above
Initial ‘A’ with King Alfonso presenting a book to God, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

Each of the seven books of the code begins with a letter in the name ‘ALFONSO’, so the Primera Partida begins ‘A servicio de Dios’ (In the service of God). It deals with the relationship between the lawmaker and God. And in this manuscript there are miniatures or pictorial initials at the beginning of each section, depicting the functions of the contemporary church and the clergy in Alfonso’s kingdom.

The letter ‘P’ with a child in a carved font being baptised by a bishop, who raises his hand in blessing; a priest and men and women stand round the font
The letter ‘P’ with a child being baptised by a bishop, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787 f. 4r

 

The letter ‘D’ with a bishop holding a book while performing an exorcism; a devil emerges from the mouth of a writhing figure, while others pray and assist
The letter ‘D’ with a bishop performing an exorcism, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787 f. 37r

You can admire all the pages of the British Library's copy of the Law Code of Alfonso X on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and read more about medieval legal manuscripts in our article on the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Chantry Westwell

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