Medieval manuscripts blog

3 posts from January 2011

24 January 2011

Codex Sinaiticus Facsimile Published

The printed facsimile of Codex Sinaiticus, the fourth-century biblical manuscript containing the oldest surviving complete New Testament, has just been published by British Library Publishing. It is the last major output of the international Codex Sinaiticus Project which began in November 2002 and involved close collaboration between us here at the British Library and the other three institutions which hold parts of the manuscript: Leipzig University Library, St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, and the National Library of Russia. The printed facsimile reunites the surviving parts of the Codex, as does the project's website, completed in July 2009. New digital photography of the whole manuscript during the project provided the images for both the website, with its new electronic transcription of the text, and for the facsimile.

The printed facsimile of Codex Sinaiticus.  

The facsimile is an enormous and extremely heavy book. It has 832 very large pages measuring 340 x 420 mm and retails for £495. I can't swear that it's available in all good bookshops, but it's definitely available in the British Library shop.

Our collaborator on the Codex Sinaiticus Project, Professor David Parker of the University of Birmingham, who led the creation of the new electronic transcription for the project's website, recently published his brilliant book, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World's Oldest Bible. It's also available through the BL's online (and onsite) shop, for only £20!

13 January 2011

Anglo-Saxon Treasures Online

We are delighted to announce that full colour images of two iconic treasures, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Old English Hexateuch, have been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the great masterpieces of medieval western art. Dated conventionally to the first decades of the 8th century, the manuscript is adorned with beautiful carpet-pages, miniatures of the evangelists, and decorated initials. It contains the usual prefatory material and canon-tables, followed by texts of the Gospels of Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The colophon added at the end of the volume declares that the scribe was Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721), that the book was bound by Æthelwald, and that the metalwork and jewels of its cover were made by Billfrith the Anchorite. The text of the whole manuscript is also notable for containing an interlinear Old English gloss, added by Aldred, provost of Chester-le-Street (fl. 970).

The beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, from The Lindisfarne Gospels, showing large decorated initials L and G.

Decorated initials 'L'(iber) 'G'(enerationis) at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r).

The Lindisfarne Gospels formed part of the library of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), and was given to the nation by his grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). Cotton's manuscripts were arranged in presses named after Roman emperors: the Lindisfarne Gospels has the shelfmark London, British Library, MS. Cotton Nero D. IV. Unfortunately, the original binding has long been lost -- the current binding was provided in 1853 at the expense of Edward Maltby, bishop of Durham (1836-1856).

The Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV) is another renowned Anglo-Saxon manuscript. Made in the 11th century, it contains the text of the first 6 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua), all translated into Old English. A large number of the manuscript's pages have illustrations of key episodes in Biblical history, including Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel. During the Middle Ages, the Old English Hexateuch belonged to the monks of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury: like the Lindisfarne Gospels, this volume later entered the collection of Sir Robert Cotton.

A page from the Old English Hexateuch, showing an illustration of Noah's Ark.

Miniature of Noah's Ark, Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v).

This is the first time that images of the whole of both manuscripts have been made available online. The British Library hopes to add further manuscripts to the Digitised Manuscripts site in the coming months.

01 January 2011

A Calendar Page for January

Calendars with illuminations and other miniatures are often found in manuscripts from the medieval era, and particularly in Books of Hours or other texts intended for individual owners. Most of these calendars are headed by an illuminated 'KL,' for 'Kalendae,' or the first day of the month according to the Roman system, from which we derive the word 'calendar.'  The 'KL' heading is usually followed by a list of important church feasts or saints' days, laid out according to this same system of Roman reckoning. 

The most significant feasts or celebrations are often written in gold or red ink (hence the phrase 'red letter days'). By examining which saints or observances are designated on an individual calendar (for example, the dedication of a particular church on a particular day), scholars can often determine the destination, or 'use,' of an unknown manuscript.

Along with listing these important dates, many medieval calendars (particularly later ones) include a miniature of the relevant sign of the zodiac, as well as a scene of the 'labour of the month.'  These 'labours' were fairly standardised, and would have been instantly recognisable to a medieval audience, although they can often require a bit of explanation for the readers of today. Each month depicts a different endeavor appropriate to that particular time of year, and these images are often some of the best evidence of the work and leisure activities of the non-nobility.

An excellent illustration of a medieval calendar can be found in the British Library's 'Isabella Breviary' (Add MS 18851) created for Queen Isabella of Castile (b. 1451, d. 1504).  A breviary is a book of prayers, hymns, and other readings designed to be read daily in accordance with the canonical hours. This magnificent example was produced in the late 1480s in Bruges, with illustrations by a number of prominent artists of the time.  We will be posting this calendar cycle throughout the year, beginning with January (below): look out for each month's folio!

A page from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, showing the calendar for January, with an illustration of a winter scene.

This page for January shows the zodiac sign for Aquarius in the upper left, depicted as a nude man with a pitcher of water (which, rather charmingly, is being poured into the river in the landscape below). He is surrounded by a winter scene, with bundled people walking through the snowy fields towards a welcoming house. In the lower margin is a scene that combines two of the most common (and most pleasant) 'labours' for January: feasting, and warming oneself by the fire.

Sarah J Biggs