Medieval manuscripts blog

4 posts from April 2011

26 April 2011

Royal Weddings from Royal Manuscripts

 On 29 April 2011, Prince William of Wales, future heir to the throne, will marry Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey.  William and Kate famously met and fell in love at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where they were both studying History of Art.

Medieval royal marriages, in contrast, were typically political alliances that resulted from cold diplomatic calculations rather than being unions of love.  Five miniatures selected from manuscripts that once belonged to the kings and queens of England (most of which will be displayed in our forthcoming Royal Manuscript Exhibition) give an insight into the stories of five royal couples, and the ways that their lives and marriages were recorded and remembered.

Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (Royal MS 14 C VII)

A detail from a manuscript of Matthew Paris' Historia Anglorum, showing a marginal illustration of the marriage of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence.

Detail of a marginal painting of the marriage of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence: Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, England (St Albans), 1235-1259, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 124v

This marginal painting was introduced by Matthew Paris into the margins of his Historia Anglorum (The History of the English) to illustrate a passage in which the chronicler discusses the marriage between King Henry III of England (1216-1272) and Eleanor, daughter of Ramon Berenguer V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy.  The ceremony that took place in 1236 in Canterbury Cathedral is evoked here by the King's gesture of placing the wedding ring on the Queen's finger.

Although Eleanor had never seen her future husband prior to the wedding, the couple became very close during their marriage, to the extent that the Queen's influence on the King and the presence of her Savoyard entourage were heavily criticised by the barons and inhabitants of London.  On 13 July 1263, certain angry London citizens even dared to attack Eleanor's barge when she was sailing down the River Thames.

Edward II and Isabella of France (Royal MS 15 E IV)

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the marriage of King Edward II and Isabella of France.

Detail of a miniature of the marriage between Edward II and Isabella, daughter of Philippe IV of France: Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des chroniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1475 (after 1471), Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v

The first volume of Jean de Wavrin's Chronicles of England ends with the reign of Edward II (1307-1327). The chapter that tells Edward's story opens with this beautiful and atmospheric illumination of his marriage to Isabella, daughter of Philippe IV of France, at the parvis of a gothic church.  The ceremony that took place in 1308 at Boulogne-sur-Mer was preceded by almost ten years of political negotiations, but instead of long-term profit this matrimonial union was to bring about a war between the two kingdoms.  Edward III, the couple's son, would use his French royal descent to claim his rights to the French throne in 1340, and thereby initiate the Hundred Years' War. 

Edward II's marriage to Isabella was not a happy one.  From the beginning, the King was more interested in the male company of his favourites.  He even sent all his wedding gifts to his long-term companion Piers Gaveston.  Soon the neglected Queen became the head of the opposition against her increasingly unpopular husband.  The next image in Wavrin's Chronicles shows Isabella, known as the She-Wolf of France, at the head of an army, plotting with her lover Roger Mortimer to overthrow the King.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of Queen Isabella and her army.

Detail of a miniature of Queen Isabella and her army, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 316v

This manuscript does not, however, provide a contemporary record of events.  It was created over a hundred years later in Bruges, and was adapted for King Edward IV (1461-1470, 1471-1483).

Richard II and Isabel of France (Royal MS 14 D VI)

A detail from a medieval manuscript of Froissart's Chroniques, showing an illustration of King Richard II receiving his bride Isabel of France.

Detail of a miniature of Richard II, king of England (1377-1399), receiving his bride, the princess Isabel, from her father, Charles VI, king of France: Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1480-1494, Royal MS 14 D VI, f. 268v

The artist known as the Master of the London Wavrin (the same artist who illuminated Royal 15 E. iv) was also responsible for the miniatures in this volume of Jean Froissart's Chroniques, which once belonged to Sir Thomas Thwaytes (d. 1503), former chancellor of the Exchequer and treasurer of the Pale of Calais.  The image at the beginning of the chapter of the Chroniques describing the events that led to Richard II's second marriage in 1396 shows this English king receiving his young bride Isabel from her father, Charles VI.  Isabel was only six years old when she married Richard, six years younger than the age limit for marriage decreed by canon law.  The union had a purely political background; it sealed the twenty-eight year truce between England and France.  The infant queen Isabel did not stay long in England; she was returned to her father in 1401 after her husband was deposed and murdered.

Henry V and Catharine de Valois (Royal MS 20 E VI)

A page from a manuscript of Froissart's Chroniques, showing an illustration of the marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois

Miniature of the marriage of Henry V and Catharine de Valois: Jean Chartier, Chronique de Charles VII, France (Calais), 1490, and England, before 1494, Royal MS 20 E VI, f. 9v

This manuscript of Jean Chartier's Chronique de Charles VII is the last volume in a set of the Grand Chroniques de France that Sir Thomas Thwaytes, treasurer of the Pale of Calais, intended as a gift for Henry VII (1485-1509).  Its first chapter opens with a monumental image of the marriage of Henry V (1413-1422) and Catharine de Valois, with the initials of the royal couple, 'K de France' and 'H. le Einglieshe', inscribed at their feet. The marriage that took place on 2 June 1420 was arranged by the Treaty of Troyes, according to which Charles VI of France not only gave his daughter's hand to the King of England, but also declared Henry V Regent of France and heir to the French throne.  The wedding scene must have had a special meaning to Henry VII's own royal identity.  Queen Catharine, who secretly married Owen Tudor after Henry V's death, was Henry Tudor's grandmother.  Multiple badges of a Tudor rose alternating with the golden portcullis of the Beauforts in the marginal decoration refer to another important matrimonial alliance.  The union of the red and white rose symbolises the union between the houses of York and Lancaster, which was reaffirmed by the marriage between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486, only a few years before this manuscript was created.

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (Royal MS 15 E VI)

A detail from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing an illustration of John Talbot presenting his book to King Henry VI and Queen Margaret.

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to Queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI, and surrounded by the court: Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

This unique collection of chivalric romances and treatises was a wedding gift presented by the renowned military leader John Talbot (d. 1453), Earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI (1422-1460, 1470-1471).  Although Margaret is depicted here as the Queen of England, sitting on a throne and holding her husband's hand, it is more probable that she received the gift of this manuscript in France before her marriage and coronation in England.  Guaranteed by a twenty-month truce between England and France, the betrothal of Margaret, daughter of René, Duke of Anjou, to Henry VI, was celebrated on 24 May 1444 in St Martin's Cathedral at Tours.  The English king was not present at the ceremony, and so the Earl of Suffolk acted on his behalf.  On her way to England, Margaret stopped in Rouen, in Normandy.  Because her wedding manuscript was illuminated by one of the most successful artists working there for English clients (now known as the Talbot Master), it is likely that John Talbot presented his gift to Margaret during her stay in the Norman capital.

 Joanna Fronska

19 April 2011

Changes in the Treasures Gallery

As frequent visitors may know, we often make changes to the illuminated manuscripts on display in our public gallery, The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.  This month we have six new manuscripts on display in the Illuminated Manuscripts: Europe section. 

In one display case are three examples of medieval Bible picture books, manuscripts that offer (as the name suggests) substantial illuminations to illustrate Biblical stories.  These were often created for the laity or for use as teaching aids. 

The Holkham Bible Picture Book (Add MS 47682) is one such example.  Commissioned by a Dominican friar and produced in England in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, it is filled with large-scale painted miniatures of Biblical scenes.  The text that accompanies and explains these miniatures is in French, the language of the upper class of England at that time, implying that it may have been intended as an instructional tool for the aristocracy. 

The opening of the Holkham Bible Picture Book, showing an illustration of the manuscript's patron and artist.

Miniature of a patron and artist / scribe, Add MS 47682, f. 1, England, S.E. (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century

The first folio of the Holkham Bible Picture Book gives us a hint of this story.  In the miniature, a Dominican friar can be seen on the left, addressing the seated artist at work.  The friar is 'speaking' to the scribe or artist, holding a scroll that reads, 'Ore feres bien e nettement car mustre serra a riche gent.' (Translation: 'Now, do it well and thoroughly, for it will be shown to important people.')  The scribe or artist responds, 'Si frai voyre, e Deux me doynt vivre, Unkes ne veyses un autretel livre.' (Translation: 'So I will, and if God grant me life, you will never see a better book than mine.')

Along with the Holkham Bible Picture Book are two additional examples of the genre.  The Egerton Genesis (Egerton MS 1894) was also produced in England, in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century, and contains images of scenes from the book of Genesis, with explanatory text in medieval French.  (Further information and images of this manuscript can be found in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)  The Genesis Picture Book (Add MS 39657), is a later example of this kind of manuscript, produced in the last quarter of the 15th century, in eastern France or the Southern Netherlands. It contains coloured line-drawings and text handwritten on paper, rather than parchment.

The second display case in this section of our Treasures Gallery contains three variations on the bestiary, or book of beasts, an enormously popular text in the 12th and 13th centuries.  A bestiary is in essence a catalogue of various animals, combining practical information about them with explanations of their moral and allegorical properties. But the 'deeper' meanings assigned to these animals can vary enormously from text to text.  For instance, the peacock, the animal shown in all the current display openings, is described by Hugh of Fouilloy in his Aviarium and Bestiary as having flesh so tough that it cannot be consumed by fire.  Hugh extrapolates that a good teacher should be like the peacock, with a mind so strengthened by learning that it will not be destroyed by the flames of lust.  (Sloane MS 278, Hugh of Fouilloy, Aviarium and Bestiary, France, c. 1325 - c. 1375).

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of a peacock being reproached by a hedgehog for its vanity.

Detail of a miniature of a peacock being reproved by a hedgehog for vanity, Egerton MS 1121, f. 74, Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit, Austria, W. (Salzburg), c. 1430

By contrast, the peacock is seen as a symbol of pride and arrogance in Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit (Mirror of Wisdom), a later medieval text that combines information from the bestiary tradition with Aesop's Fables to tell moral stories about various animals. (Egerton MS 1121, from Austria (Salzburg), c. 1430).  In the miniature above, the peacock is being chastised for his vanity by a hedgehog, a symbol of humility. 

  A page from a manuscript of Peraldus' Theological miscellany, showing illustrations of the phoenix.

Miniatures of the phoenix, Harley MS 3244, f.  53v, Peraldus, Theological miscellany, including the Summa de Vitiis and bestiary, England, c. 1236-1275

The peacock also serves as an allegorical symbol (albeit obliquely) in Peraldus' Summa de Vitiis, a compilation volume that contains a number of texts dedicated to the art of preaching. (Harley MS 3244, from England, after c. 1236). Interestingly, a bestiary is included as well, indicating how animals could be used as allegorical tools in sermons.  The text in the miniature above describes the phoenix, the mythical bird said to have been reborn from the ashes, but the artist has chosen to illustrate this section with miniatures of a bird most closely resembling a peacock. 

14 April 2011

Using our medieval manuscripts

The British Library is one of the world's greatest research libraries. It currently holds an estimated 14 million books, together with vast numbers of manuscripts, newspapers, maps, stamps and sound recordings. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, but it serves users worldwide -- this blog is currently viewed by people from all parts of Europe (including Greece, Finland and Romania), from North and South America, and from as far afield as China, Japan and Morocco.

The British Library building at St Pancras and the sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton. 

The new British Library building at St Pancras was officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1999

Many of you reading this blog may never need to visit London. But for those of you who do, here are three handy tips on using our medieval manuscripts:

1. Admissions

All users of our Reading Rooms at St Pancras require a reader pass. In addition, we ask that first-time users of our medieval manuscripts bring with them a letter of recommendation from someone familiar with their work, outlining the nature of their research and the items they wish to consult. Many of our manuscripts are exceedingly old and fragile, and so we place restrictions on their usage in order to safeguard them for future generations.

2. Ordering manuscripts

Manuscripts can be ordered in advance via our Integrated Catalogue. (Click on Request list, then Manuscripts Collection, and go from there.) This can save time if you are travelling to London from a great distance, and only have a limited opportunity to use our Reading Rooms. We regret that some manuscripts will occasionally be on exhibition or undergoing conservation. Please contact [email protected] for further information. We cannot guarantee that users will always be able to see specific items, but most of our manuscripts will be available for consultation most of the time.

3. Reproductions

Reproductions of our collection items can be ordered online via our Imaging Services. You can also view images of some of our manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts site. For those of you interested in medieval and Renaissance decoration, the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a rich resource containing descriptions and select images of many of our most famous manuscripts.

We look forward to seeing you in London, or to sharing our collections with you online.

01 April 2011

A Calendar Page for April

For a further discussion of medieval calendars, as well as the Isabella Breviary itself, please see the post for January.

  A page from the Isabella Breviary, showing the calendar for April, with scenes of people celebrating the arrival of Spring. 

The calendar page for April from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Add MS 18851, f. 3

This page is from the calendar for April, and depicts the zodiac sign for Taurus the bull in the upper right of the folio.  Calendrical 'labours of the month' for April are among the most varied, and typically show scenes of people celebrating the arrival of spring.  In this miniature, two young lovers are walking by a river, close to a man fishing and a group of people enjoying a boat ride.