Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from July 2011

27 July 2011

The Great Bible

A page from the Great Bible, showing an illustration of Hannah at prayer blessed by the high priest Eli, and Elkanah accompanied by Peninah and a group of their children.

Miniature of Hannah at prayer blessed by the high priest Eli, and Elkanah accompanied by Peninah and a group of their children, Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 64

At a massive 630 mm tall, this ‘Great Bible’ is the largest book in the upcoming Royal exhibition, and one of the biggest manuscripts in the Old Royal Library and the British Library.  It is also the only manuscript in the Royal collection associated with Henry IV.  Its title of the ‘Great’ or ‘Big’ Bible comes from a reference in an inventory of books made at Richmond Palace in 1535, which refers to a Biblia magna (Great or Big Bible), and to a further reference of a magna Biblia in Henry V’s will, as a Bible that had been owned by his father, Henry IV.  Its huge size may indicate that it was used for readings in the royal chapel, rather than as a Bible for private study. 

The Great Bible is also one of a very few extensively illustrated English biblical manuscripts to survive from the late Middle Ages.  Each book opens with a historiated (or pictorial) initial and the prologues to biblical books include images of St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin.  For example, at the beginning of 1 Kings (1 Samuel in modern Protestant Bibles) Elkanah appears at an altar with his two wives: the childless Hannah stands on her own on the right, while the fertile Peninah appears next to Elkanah with a line of children behind her.

The Royal project team

21 July 2011

Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library: the French Tradition

A new virtual exhibition focusing on the French language manuscripts of Arthurian literature held by the British Library is now available through the online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

The British Library has the largest collection of Arthurian manuscripts in England, with more than 40 of the about 500 that survive worldwide.  The manuscripts in the collection vary in size and quality, and contain sections of the lengthy Lancelot-Grail cycle in different combinations.  Some are beautifully illuminated volumes commissioned by princes or aristocrats.

 Royal MS 20 D IV

A page from a manuscript of the romance Lancelot du Lac, showing an illustration of the knight Agravain approaching a female figure in a pavilion.

Miniature of Agravain approaching a damsel in distress in a pavilion, north-eastern France (Arras?), c. 1300-1315, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 168v

This high quality manuscript contains the latter part of the Prose Lancelot (or the Lancelot ‘proper’), the story of Lancelot’s early years, his forbidden romance with Guinevere and of the chivalric deeds of the knights of the Round Table. It is by far the longest part of the Prose and is believed to have been composed first, with the stories of Merlin and the early Grail legends added later as a ‘prequel’. The miniatures in this manuscript illustrating episodes from the text are complemented by illuminated initials in colours and gold, heraldic motifs and decorated borders with birds, animals and hybrid creatures, all designed for the entertainment of a noble patron, who may have been English. It was owned by the Bohun family, who had close connections to English royalty, as early as the fourteenth century, and later by Henry VIII.

Other Arthurian manuscripts can be found in small, plain volumes, created for lesser patrons.

Lansdowne MS 757

A text page from a medieval manuscript of the romance Lancelot du Lac.

Text page from Lancelot, with decorated initial, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Lansdowne MS 757, f. 144

This manuscript, from the collection of the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, and purchased by the British Museum in 1807, also contains part of the Prose Lancelot, telling of many of the knights' exploits, including the episode when Lancelot is first captivated by the sight of Queen Guinevere.  The red initial with blue decoration (shown in the folio above) is English in style and marks a new chapter, with the words ‘Les or se test un poi ici endroit lecontes de Sagremor revient a Hector...’ (Henceforth the story is silent for a little at this point about Sagremor and returns to Hector...). This opening line is characteristic of the style of Arthurian prose texts, which contain such complex interwoven narratives that the audience sometimes needs an indication of what to expect next.

Some of the Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library were created in England and remained here throughout the medieval era, while others were acquired by English collectors at a later date. A significant number are in the Royal collection, the manuscripts owned by the Kings of England and bequeathed to the British Library by George II in 1757.  Two of the most beautiful, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV (see above), will be on display in our upcoming exhibition in November, ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’.

The Library also has a rare copy of the complete Lancelot-Grail cycle, now separated into 3 volumes, which contains 747 images illustrating the epic tale. The manuscript, now Add MS 10292, Add MS 10293 and Add MS 10294, dates from 1316 (an inscription on one image gives the precise year) and is believed to be the work of a small group or artists in eastern Artois or western Flanders; this workshop also produced Royal MS 14 E III (see above).

A detail from a manuscript of the Prose-Vulgate Cycle, showing an illustration of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Miniature of Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 199 (detail)

Chantry Westwell

19 July 2011

Bible Historiale, Royal MS 17 E VII

A highly illuminated page from a Bible Historiale, showing an illustration of the Trinity surrounded by the figures of the Four Evangelists.

Miniature of the Trinity surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists, Royal MS 17 E VII, Vol I, f. 1

Most biblical texts in the medieval period were written in Latin.  However, English and European nobility also owned translations of the Bible into French, the first language of the English court until the late fifteenth century.  The most common version of the Bible in French is known as the Bible historiale or history Bible, because it combines sections of the Latin Vulgate with commentary or gloss interpreting the biblical text and interweaves other events from history or mythology chronologically.  This work of translation and interpolation was based largely on the earlier Historia scholastica by Peter Comestor (d. c. 1178), and was completed in 1295 by a canon of Saint Pierre d'Aire-sur-la-Lys, in the Pas de Calais, Guyart des Moulins. 

The work was long and many copies, like this one, were bound in two volumes. Befitting the status of their intended owners and the purpose of a historicised Bible for laymen, they were also abundantly illustrated.  Typically each book begins with an illustration.  This deluxe copy follows that pattern, but is unique in the choice of image to open the volume.  Rather than a scene of Creation, as might seem appropriate for the beginning of the Bible, instead this manuscript opens with the Trinity surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists, reflecting perhaps a more synthesized view of the overall message of the text.  The illustrations were painted by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, who worked for Charles V of France (1364 - 1380), and it seems likely that this book was made for the French king.  

The Royal project team

14 July 2011

The St Cuthbert Gospel

  The St Cuthbert Gospel, with its original medieval binding.

The British Library has today announced an ambitious fundraising campaign to acquire the St Cuthbert Gospel for the nation. Created in the 7th century and intimately associated with one of Britain’s foremost saints, the Gospel is the earliest surviving intact European book and one of the world’s most significant books.

A manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, the St Cuthbert Gospel was produced in the North of England in the late 7th century and was buried alongside St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne, apparently in 698, and later found in the saint’s coffin at Durham Cathedral in 1104.  It has a beautifully-worked, original, red leather binding in excellent condition, and is the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund has made a major grant of £4.5 million towards the fundraising campaign, the largest single grant for a heritage acquisition in the British Library’s history and a huge boost to the campaign to acquire the Gospel. The Art Fund has also generously pledged £250,000 and a similar sum was donated by The Garfield Weston Foundation in recognition of the importance of the book to Britain. The Library is now in discussion with a range of other major donors with a view to securing the remainder of the funding required, by the deadline of 31 March 2012. Read the full press release here.

UPDATE (17 April 2012): The St Cuthbert Gospel has now been acquired by the British Library, following a successful fundraising appeal. Thank you to all our supporters for making this possible.

12 July 2011

The Alphonso Psalter

A page from the Alphonso Psalter, showing a historiated initial with a representation of King David playing a harp, and a bas-de-page scene of the fight between David and Goliath.

Historiated initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp, with a bas-de-page scene of David and Goliath, and a full bar border, Add MS 24686, f. 11

Like the Westminster Psalter, the beginning of Psalms in the Alphonso Psalter is illustrated by an image of a crowned King David harping.  Here, however, the image has been placed inside the first letter of the text ‘B’(eatus) (blessed).  This type of ‘historiated initial’ is characteristic of English illuminated manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Also characteristic of the later thirteenth century is the solid ‘bar’ border enclosing the text, which is inhabited by interesting scenes and creatures.  On this page birds perch around the edges, while in the lower margin David prepares to launch his slingshot against a heavily armed and giant Goliath. 

The arms in the centre of the lower margin identify the intended recipient of this copy of the Psalms as Prince Alphonso (b. 1273, d. 1284), the second son and heir apparent of Edward I (1272-1307) and Eleanor of Castile, named after his grandfather Alfonso X of Castile and León.  The arms of England, on the left, are coupled with those of Holland and Zeeland representing Margaret, daughter of Florent V, Count of Holland and Zeeland, to whom Alphonso was betrothed in 1284.  Unfortunately, the young Prince died a few months before the wedding was scheduled to take place; the decoration of this opulent Psalter was left unfinished as a result.  It was completed a decade later in 1297, when Alphonso’s sister Elizabeth married John I of Holland and Zeeland, the brother of Alphonso’s intended bride, making the pairing of arms and the Psalter again appropriate for a royal wedding.

The Royal project team

07 July 2011

Pearl on BBC Radio 4

One of the British Library's medieval literary treasures is the 14th century manuscript which contains the unique copies of the poems Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tune in to BBC Radio 4 this Sunday, 10 July, at 16.30, for a documentary focusing on Pearl, presented by Julian May, and featuring the original manuscript.

Pearl is the tale of the poet's recently-deceased daughter, who appears to him in a dream, and offers him comfort in his time of mourning. The poem is preceded by a number of full-page miniatures, depicting the poet and Pearl standing on opposite sides of a river. The identity of the poet remains open to question, but he was a contemporary of his more famous counterpart, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400).

A page from the Gawain Manuscript, showing an illustration accompanying the Middle English poem Pearl, of the narrator pointing to the Pearl Maiden on the side of a river.

Pearl: London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A X, f. 42r

The manuscript forms part of the Cotton collection at the British Library, having belonged to the Parliamentarian and antiquarian scholar Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), who kept his books in presses named after the Roman emperors. The Pearl-manuscript is consequently known as Cotton MS Nero A X, after the arrangement devised by its 17th century owner. All four poems have been copied into the manuscript by a single scribe, with the illustrations having been added one or more decades later.

If you miss the programme, you can listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

05 July 2011

The Westminster Psalter

A page from the Westminster Psalter, showing an illustration of King David playing the harp.

Miniature of King David playing the harp at the beginning of the Psalms, Royal MS 2 A XXII, f. 14v

From an early period the book of the Psalms formed the basis for monastic services as well as private devotion.  Copies of the book were often circulated separately from other books of the Bible, accompanied by calendars with saints’ days and other devotional material, collectively known as Psalters.  In the medieval period David was believed to be the author of the Psalms, and as a result decorated Psalters typically include images of significant events in his life.  The usual illustration to the beginning of the Psalms is an image of David as king and musician holding a harp, indicating both his authorship and the nature of Psalms as songs. 

This is seen in the famous Westminster Psalter (so-called because it is associated with Westminster abbey). It may have been commissioned by one of its abbots at the beginning of the thirteenth century, to judge by the style of its decoration, which constitutes some of the most elegant and refined painting of the period.  The name of the artist who created these images is not known, but he was probably an itinerant layman rather than a monk.  Prayers added in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and a reference to the Psalter in a fourteenth-century inventory attest to its continued use at the abbey. 

The Royal project team

01 July 2011

A Calendar Page for July

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 July, with an illustration of labourers cutting grain with their sickles for the harvest.

The calendar page for July, from the Bestiary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Add MS 18851, f. 4v 

This calendar page, for July, features another unusual version of a traditional figure; the zodiac sign for Leo is depicted as a lion with prominent white whiskers and an unlikely mane.  Beneath him, the work of the harvest continues, with peasants labouring and cutting grain with their sickles.