Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

5 posts from June 2011

28 June 2011

The New Minster Liber Vitae

A page from the New Minster Liber Vitae, showing an illustration of King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a golden cross to the altar of the New Minster in Winchester

King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to the altar of the New Minster, Winchester, Stowe MS 944, f. 6

The image at the beginning of this book is a record of a real event:  King Cnut (d. 1035) and his queen Emma of Normandy (Ælfgifu) (d. 1052), the widow of Ethelred the Unready (Æthelræd Unræd), presenting a cross to the church of New Minster, Winchester. The cross itself was lost in the 12th century, but this near-contemporary account of its gift remains. However, the image is meant to be more than just a simple record of these royal donors making a royal donation — Cnut and Emma are also shown occupying a place of particular importance in the spiritual realm. Above the King and Queen are the patron saints of New Minster, the Virgin Mary and St Peter, with his ident. Between them angels present Emma with a veil and Cnut with a crown. The central figure of the image is the risen Christ, directly above the cross, holding an open book, presumably the book of life.

The earthy hierarchy is also depicted: below the King and Queen are the monks of New Minster. The central monk holds an open book, probably this book itself, also a book of life (Liber vitae), so-called because it includes within it a list of monks of the community, so that ‘by making a record on earth in written form, [those named] may be inscribed into the pages of the heavenly’. The first names in the book, however, are not the monks, but King and Queen themselves. Their identities are also made clear by the inscription of their names next to their portraits: ‘Ælfgifu regina’ (Queen Emma) and ‘Cnut rex’ (King Cnut).

The Royal project team

21 June 2011

The Cnut Gospels

The Incipit page for the Gospel of St Mark, from the Cnut Gospels, showing a decorated frame and initial letters in gold.

Incipit to the Gospel of Mark, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45

From an early period, books containing only the Four Gospels were among the most common of biblical texts.  Many deluxe copies feature elaborate full-page decoration at the beginning of each Gospel, often, as here, illuminated with gold.  This elegant copy also has gold initials at the beginning of each biblical verse.  The border surrounding the beginning of Mark features lush stylized leaves characteristic of late Anglo-Saxon decoration (compare Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), with embedded roundels of saints.  The saint on the right holds a golden book, perhaps analagous to the type of jewelled or precious cover that might originally have been affixed to this copy of the Gospels.

This manuscript belonged to Christ Church, Canterbury from an early date, and may have been created there.  It is now known as the Cnut Gospels because of an added text in Old English that names Cnut, King of England (r. 1016-1035) and his brother Harold as ‘brothers’ of the monastery. On the page opposite the beginning of Mark’s Gospel another inscription confirmed the religious community’s liberties, also naming the King.  Perhaps Cnut paid for this deluxe copy of the Gospels and presented it to the community: the first inscription is written as if Cnut was speaking: ‘I myself took the charters... and laid them on Christ’s own altar’.  However, there is no mention of a donation of this book, which might be expected if it was a gift from the King. 

Despite its strong royal associations, this book entered the Old Royal Library only at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (d. 1612), the eldest son of James I, acquired the library of John, 1st Baron Lumley (b. c. 1533, d. 1609).

The Royal project team

14 June 2011

The New Minster Charter

As we look forward to our Royal exhibition, which opens on 11 November 2011, we are going to showcase highlights of the British Library's spectacular collections.  This week we take a peek at a lavish Anglo-Saxon charter.

A page from the New Minster Charter, showing an illustration of King Edgar, with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty, and angels.

Full-page miniature of King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty, and angels, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

King Edgar (d. 975), king of all of England from 959, was an ecclesiastical reformer, appointing bishops who imposed the Benedictine rule on monastic communities such as the one at New Minster, Winchester.  This charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), in the unusual format of a book rather than a single sheet of parchment, commemorates the introduction of Benedict's Rule at New Minster in 964.  The manuscript was completed two years later, and is written entirely in gold — the only known such example from the late Anglo-Saxon era.  Its importance is further indicated by the large full-page miniature of the King at the beginning of the book.

In the miniature, surrounded by a typically lavish Anglo-Saxon border, Edgar holds a book, presumably this very charter. He offers it to Christ above, who is seated on a rainbow in glory, being held aloft by angels.  Flanking Edgar are the two patron saints of the abbey, the Virgin Mary and St Peter (who are also pictured with King Cnut and Queen Emma in the Winchester Liber vitae (Stowe 944).  The King’s relationship to Christ is made explicit by an inscription on the page facing the image: ‘Thus he who established the stars sits on a lofty throne. King Edgar, prostrate and venerating, adores him.’ Through its text, decoration and imagery, this manuscript illustrates the importance of the King’s patronage, but also the limitations of his power.  

The Royal project team

10 June 2011

Greek Manuscripts Update

We recently added more Greek manuscripts to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

A page from a copy of the Four Gospels in Ancient Greek, showing the Gospel of St Mark.

Gospel of St Mark, 1326 (Add MS 5117, f. 84v)

In response to some of our readers' comments, here is a list (with hyperlinks) of the 24 new additions:

A page from a 10th-century copy of the Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus, written in Ancient Greek.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 41 (In Pentecosten), 10th century (Add MS 14771, f. 70v)

Thank you for taking the time to comment -- we always welcome feedback.

01 June 2011

A Calendar Page for June

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 June, with an illustration of a hay harvest, with labourers cutting hay and stacking it.

The calendar page for June from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Add MS 18851, f. 4

On this calendar page for June, the zodiac sign for Cancer is depicted as a rather odd-looking crab (although this lobster-like version of the crustacean is a fairly common one in medieval manuscripts).  Below, the romance of May has given way to the hard work of the hay harvest, with peasants cutting hay and stacking it (while one man takes a bit of a refreshment break).