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

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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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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