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

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.

Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.

Peter Toth

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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.

27 August 2022

Help us decipher this inscription

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Do you fancy yourself as some sort of medieval detective? Then this might be just the right thing for you.

Hot off the press is this ultraviolet image of one of the manuscripts in our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the cartulary of Coldingham Priory. You can read more about the project in this blogpost and you can view the cartulary in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site (Harley MS 6670). The cartulary was made in 1434 for the Cistercian nuns of Coldingham in Scotland, and it contains copies of a number of documents, including a charter of Alexander II, King of Scots (r. 1214–1249), and several of the Earls of Dunbar. A note at the end of the volume (f. 55v) reveals that the nuns asked John Laurence, a public notary, to make a transcript of their charters, because of their age and out of fear of English invasion, which meant they were more susceptible to burning or other accidents.

A page of the Coldingham cartulary with an inscription at the top, revealed under ultraviolet light

While we were cataloguing the manuscript, we noticed this late medieval note in the upper part of the page at the end, that someone has tried to erase, very effectively as it happens. But what does it say? We'd love your thoughts. Is it an ownership inscription of some kind, or does it give an insight into how the cartulary was made or used?

If you are able to read some or all of the words, please pop a comment into the box below or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval. We'd be extremely grateful for your help. Here is a detail of the inscription, and you can see what it looks like with the naked eye here (Harley MS 6670, f. 57v).

Highlight of the inscription

 

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25 August 2022

Hildegard-go!

Earlier this year we announced our major Medieval and Renaissance Women project (you can read more about it in this blogpost.) Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, the British Library is digitising many of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, and made between 1100 and 1600.

A page from a medieval manuscript of Hildegard von Bingen's collected works, featuring a decorated border and initials in gold.

The prologue of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber divinorum operum (Add MS 15418, f. 7r)

We have some great news to report: the first batch of ten manuscript volumes is now available to view online. They include copies of the works of Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan; a manuscript illuminated by the German nun Sibilla von Bondorf; two witnesses of Le Sacre de Claude de France; a Dutch prayer-book designed to support young women's literacy; and two cartularies (one secular, the other religious). 

A page from a manuscript of The Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, featuring an illustration of the Virgin Mary and Child, and a bishop, painted by Sibilla von Bondorff.

The Virgin Mary and Child with a bishop, perhaps St Giles, painted by Sibilla von Bondorf, a German nun and artist (Add MS 15686, f. 1r)

A page from a medieval manuscript of a work of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Christine writing at her desk and the armoured goddess Minerva outside.

Christine de Pizan writing in her study and the goddess Minerva, at the beginning of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (Harley MS 4605, f. 3r)

A full list of the published manuscripts is provided at the end of this post. We'll reveal more on the Blog in the coming months. Hopefully this initial selection whets your appetite for the treats in store!

An illustration from a Middle Dutch prayer-book, showing a group of girls learning in a classroom, with a teacher holding a wooden paddle.

An illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom, from a Middle Dutch prayer-book (Harley MS 3828, f. 27v)

A brief word about how we've chosen the manuscripts. In February, we asked readers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to recommend items that were most relevant to their research and to the themes of our project, such as female health, education and spirituality. The feedback was astonishing — we received over 60 suggestions of manuscripts from nearly 30 researchers and other members of the public — and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your enthusiastic responses. We then compared these nominations with other collection items held at the Library, taking into consideration factors such as the contents and date of each manuscript, its direct relevance to the lives of medieval and Renaissance women, and whether the manuscript's condition makes it suitable for digitisation. We've also strived to be as representative as possible by including manuscripts from different regions of Europe (and in different languages), as well as from the whole period 1100–1600.

Add MS 15418

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum

England, 15th century

Add MS 15686

Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibilla von Bondorf

Swabia, c. 1480

Add MS 29986

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

France, 1407–1410

Cotton MS Titus A XVII

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Harley MS 3828

Middle Dutch prayer-book

Southern Netherlands, c. 1440-c. 1500

Harley MS 4605

Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie

London, 1434

Harley MS 6670

Cartulary of Coldstream Priory

Coldstream, 1434

Royal MS 19 B XVI

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

Northern France, 1428

Stowe MS 582

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Stowe MS 776

Cartulary of the estates of John de Vaux and his daughter and co-heiress Petronilla de Narford

England, 14th century

 

A page from a manuscript of Le Sacre de Claude de France, showing an illustration of the French Queen's coronation.

The Coronation of Claude de France at St Denis in 1517 (Stowe MS 582, f. 18v)

A page from the Cartulary of Coldstream Priory, showing the text of a charter, with a marginal drawing of a lion in red and black ink.

The cartulary of Coldstream Priory (Harley MS 6670, f. 22r)

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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