Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

07 March 2011

Not Just Pretty Faces

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contains descriptions and images of the most lavishly illustrated and decorated manuscripts in the British Library's collections.  But for the purposes of our catalogue 'illuminated' is applied in its widest sense, so that not only manuscripts with gold and silver decoration, or those containing exquisite miniatures, are included.  In addition, manuscripts with lesser decoration, some with initials in colours, but which contain interesting texts or script, are in the catalogue and in some cases images will be added later as they become available.

Here are two examples from the Royal collection:

Royal MS 15 B XXII

A text page from an 11th-century manuscript of Ælfric's Grammar, showing large initial letters.

Text page with large initials and Latin and Anglo-Saxon script, from Ælfric's Grammar, England, second half of the 11th century, Royal MS 15 B XXII, f. 2

This manuscript of Ælfric's Grammar dates from the second half of the 11th century, the late Old English period, and is copied in a clear, concise script, which clearly distinguishes the two languages.  The Old English text is written in Anglo-Saxon round minuscule and has insular letter forms like þ and ð while the Latin is copied in English Caroline minuscule with horizontal feet on the minims, characteristic of English style.  Metallic red initials and red rustic capital titles are the only decoration.

Ælfric of Eynsham, born in 950, was educated at the monastery of Winchester, where it is believed that a standardized written form of Old English was developed.  This manual, based on Priscian, was written circa 998, and is an introduction to Latin grammar for English students.  It is the first Latin grammar written in the English language and Ælfric used considerable skill to adapt the vernacular, in some cases coining new linguistic terminology for the purpose.  Latin terms, when used, are accompanied by their English equivalents; for example, 'tempus tid, modus gemet... numerus getel,' and the aim is to give simple, clear explanations of complex Latin grammatical concepts.

Royal 15 B xxii is believed to have been owned by Matthew Parker, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century, as it contains notes and markings in red pencil probably in his handwriting.  The 11th century text is incomplete, and the missing portions were supplied from another manuscript while in Parker's possession.

There are 6 manuscripts of Ælfric's grammar in the British Library, and they provide an insight into how medieval scholars viewed languages, particularly the English vernacular, in a period of linguistic upheaval brought about by the Norman Conquest.

Royal MS 13 E IX

A page from a manuscript of historical and geographical works, showing a large puzzle initial Q.

Puzzle initial 'Q' with lattice-work in-filling and decoration in the form of leaves, from a book of historical and geographical works, S. E. England, last decade of the 14th century to the first decade of the 15th century, Royal MS 13 E IX, f. 40

This manuscript contains an English collection of historical and geographical works in Latin and French compiled circa 1400.  I will focus on three texts, the first two of which are in Latin.

The 'Chronica Maiora' is a contemporary account of the reign of Richard II and the influence of John of Gaunt by Thomas Walsingham, who, as chronicler at St Albans Abbey, had unique access to the records kept there and was acquainted with the key players. The text in this manuscript is believed to have been copied by him or under his supervision in the late 1390s and provides a 'breaking news' version of events, including the Peasants' Revolt, from the perspective of the monks at St Albans.

Sir John Mandeville's Travels describes the travels of an English knight who left England around 1322 and journeyed throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia and Turkey.  Though many of the geographical details are accurate, there are fantastical accounts of people with the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, and of a tribe whose only means of sustenance was the smell of apples. The existence of a person by the name Mandeville, who claims in the preface to be from St Albans, is doubtful. 

 'Des Grantz Geanz', a short version of the verse history of early Britain from Albina to the reign of Brutus Greenshield, is in Anglo-Norman, the French dialect spoken and written in England after the Norman Conquest.  Albina and her sisters, set adrift by their father, the king of Greece, for the attempted murder of their husbands, land on an uninhabited island, which is then named Albion after the leading sister.  The sisters founded the giant race of Albion which is conquered by Brutus, who renames the land Britain.  The rest is history!

The hybrid gothic script combines the rounded loops and long 'r' of English cursive handwriting of the period with a more formal gothic aspect.  The puzzle initial at the head of the page contains lattice-work and foliate decoration in the English style and there are numerous smaller decorated initials in red or blue.  Copied at St Albans, this large volume entered the Royal library during the reign of Henry VIII, along with numerous works expropriated in the Dissolution of the monasteries.

Chantry Westwell


You wrote: "In addition, manuscripts with lesser decoration, some with initials in colours, but which contain interesting texts or script"

Thanks for this!
I understand that it is probably in the beginning a good thing to start with colorful, beautiful manuscripts, but it would be nice to see more scholarly important manuscripts also.
One manuscript that comes to mind immediately it the Gospel manuscript Add 33277 (Gregory Aland No. 892), probably the most important minuscule of the New Testament.
Any chance to see this any time soon?

Dear Mr Willker,

Thank you very much for your comment, and for your interest in our collections. As you mentioned, we have begun our work on the Royal collection by including mostly illuminated and highly decorated works in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. However, we have begun work into other aspects of the collection, and a number of these manuscripts will be included with our next upload in the summer.

Regarding Add 33277, we are currently digitising more Greek manuscripts from our collections, which will be added in due course to the following site: These include manuscripts already described in the Summary Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts, but unfortunately do not include Add 33277, the New Testament. We would very much like to continue this project, if finding allows; the digitisation of our Greek manuscripts has been generously sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos foundation.

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