Medieval manuscripts blog

7 posts from August 2011

29 August 2011

The New Testament in Codex Sinaiticus

We recently received an enquiry, asking why the Acts of the Apostles was not to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website. In fact, Acts is part of the Codex, but not in its conventional, modern position after the Gospels. Acts is instead located towards the end of the New Testament, sandwiched between Philemon and James.

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest surviving complete New Testament, and one of the two oldest manuscripts of the whole Bible. Its story is recounted in a fascinating study by David Parker, available from the British Library's online shop. At the time that Codex Sinaiticus was made, around the middle of the 4th century, there was no agreement as to which books constituted the Bible, or the order in which they should be arranged. Indeed, before this date there had been no concept of the Bible as a single volume, containing all those texts familiar to modern readers.

The front cover of D. C. Parker's Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World's Oldest Bible

D.C. Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World's Oldest Bible (London: The British Library, 2010): ISBN 978-0-7123-5803-3 (£20)

To create Codex Sinaiticus required the collaboration of arguably four scribes (designated by modern scholars A, B1, B2 and D), working from approximately thirty exemplars. In order to expedite the process, the scribes would have copied different parts of the text at the same time, dividing the work between them. For example, Scribe D is known to have copied Genesis and portions of Matthew, Mark and Luke (in addition to other books of the Bible); while Scribe A produced large chunks of the Old Testament, and most of the New Testament, including Acts.

Layout was an essential consideration, particularly when individual scribes had to finish a block of text -- such as a specific book -- at the end of a quire. In Codex Sinaiticus, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke occupy quires 74 to 79. John, in turn, begins a new quire, with the last two leaves of its final quire having been cut out, so that the book is free-standing (quires 80 to 81). The next block of text, quires 82 to 91, comprises the letters of Paul, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, Revelation, and the Epistle of Barnabas. As Parker suggests, it looks as though the team responsible for creating Codex Sinaiticus regarded everything after the Gospels as an undifferentiated collection of letters, Acts and the Apocalypse.

The full order of books in the New Testament of Codex Sinaiticus is as follows:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Acts, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas.


24 August 2011

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

A highly illuminated page from a Bible Historiale, showing an illustration of God the Creator and a decorated border.

Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, Vol. I, f. 3

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is the British Library’s first major exhibition to bring together the Library’s Royal collection, a treasure trove of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th centuries. These dazzling artistic artefacts will debunk the myth that these were ‘the Dark Ages’.

Curated by Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics, Professor John Lowden, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the exhibition showcases stunning manuscripts that are outstanding examples of royal decorative and figurative painting from this era, their colours often as vibrant as when they were first painted. Beyond declaring the artistry of their makers, these luxurious manuscripts unlock the secrets of the private lives and public personae of the royals throughout the Middle Ages and provide the most vivid surviving source for understanding royal identity. As well as providing clear instruction on appropriate regal behaviour they give a direct insight into royal moral codes and religious belief and shed light on the politics of the day. 

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to get up close to the manuscripts and learn how, and by whom, they were created. In addition, visitors will be introduced to the background of the collection, including how and why Edward IV turned the collection into a library after years of personal collecting by English monarchs. Other sections of the exhibition will explore:

  • how manuscripts reveal the role of religion in royal life, from public worship to private devotion
  • the right to rule as defined by royal lineage and traditions such as the coronation process
  • how manuscripts shaped the education and knowledge of the royal family, from scientific learning to etiquette
  • the close affinity of English royalty with fashionable Continental artistic styles and their appropriations of the art and culture of their longstanding political rival, France, to which English kings laid claim throughout much of the 14th and 15th centuries

Exhibition highlights include the following:

A page from Vincent of Beauvais's Miroir historial, showing an illustration of the book's author within a border containing the arms of King Edward IV.

Miniature of the book’s author, Vincent of Beauvais, within a border containing the arms of Edward IV, to whom this manuscript belonged. Miroir historial, vol. 1 (Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, trans. into French by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, c. 1478-1480, Royal MS 14 E I, Vol. I, f. 3

A page from the Psalter of Henry VIII, showing an illustration of Henry VIII praying in his bedchamber.

Miniature of Henry VIII praying in his bedchamber in a Psalter that he commissioned and annotated himself. Henry VIII’s Psalter, London, c. 1540, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3

A detail from a genealogical roll chronicle of the Kings of England, showing the ancestry of William the Conqueror, with portraits of the Norman king and his descendants.

Detail from a genealogical roll recording the Norman ancestry of William the Conqueror. Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England (East Anglia?), c. 1300-1307, Royal MS 14 B VI

A page from a manuscript of The Regiment of Princes by Thomas Hoccleve, showing a portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales, presenting the book to John Mowbray.

Miniature of Henry, Prince of Wales, presenting this book to John Mowbray. Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, London, c. 1411-1413, Arundel MS 38, f. 37

A detail from an illustrated itinerary from London to the Holy Land by Matthew Paris, showing the road from London to Beauvais.

The route from London to Beauvais, part of an illustrated itinerary from London to the Holy Land, formerly bound at the beginning of Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum and Chronica maiora. St Albans, c.1250, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2

A page from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing an illustration of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, enthroned beside King Henry VI.

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presents this book to Margaret of Anjou, enthroned beside Henry VI. The Shrewsbury Book, Rouen, 1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

Since December, the Royal project team has been posting images and descriptions of other manuscripts that will be featured in this exhibition. If you wish to see more of the books included in the exhibition, select the ‘Royal’ tag below.

19 August 2011

White Gloves or Not White Gloves

Whenever a British Library manuscript is featured in the press or on television, we inevitably receive adverse comments about our failure to wear white gloves! The association of glove-wearing with handling old books is in fact a modern phenomenon, and one that has little scientific basis.

A hand wearing a white glove. 

The British Library has published advice on the use of white gloves. Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

This short video demonstrates how not to handle a manuscript wearing white gloves (or, indeed, gloves of any colour).

It's also reassuring to know that it was recognized in the Middle Ages that wearing gloves to handle books was to be frowned upon. There is a story of a certain Lady Zwedera, a new recruit to the congregation of Deventer (in the modern Netherlands), who "happily wore clean white gloves on her hands, as if she liked cleanness, and said that she did so lest she mark the books from which she often and diligently read the holy scripture; but when she heard from one of the fathers that because of such cleanness, which carried before it a certain extravagance, she would suffer purgatory, she at once abandoned them." So now you know the dangers that may confront you if you don the dreaded white gloves!

(We are indebted to our former colleague Nicole Eddy, of the University of Notre Dame, for drawing this anecdote to our attention.)

For further British Library advice regarding the handling of collection items, please see: 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

16 August 2011

The Beaufort / Beauchamp Hours

A page from the Beauchamp or Beaufort Hours, showing an illustration of the Annunciation, with two donors praying.

Miniature of the Annunciation, with two donors praying, Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 23v

In the later Middle Ages the most popular type of devotional book was the Book of Hours, which contained a series of prayers to be recited at different hours of the day.  These hours or times corresponded to the hours for monastic services (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline) and like those services included readings from the Psalms.  As in Psalters, the lay devotional book from the earlier period, Books of Hours also included calendars listing saints days and other holidays.  And like luxury copies of the Psalms, elaborate Books of Hours contained painted devotional images at each of the major divisions of the text, typically events in the life of Mary, as in the Annunciation pictured here at the beginning of Matins.

Additions of births and deaths of family members in the calendar of this Book of Hours allow it to be identified as the prayer book of the grandmother and mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beauchamp (b. 1405/6, d. 1482), and Lady Margaret Beaufort (b. 1443, d. 1509).  Margaret Beauchamp recorded the birth of her daughter Margaret, and the death of her second husband, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (d. 1444).  In turn, Margaret Beaufort noted the birth of her son Henry, the future Henry VII, together with other significant events in his life.  The images in the manuscript, including the Annunciation pictured, were recycled from another family prayerbook; it seems likely that the couple praying before the Virgin are John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset (d. 1410) and Margaret Holland (d. 1439), the great-grandparents of Henry VII. 

The Royal project team

09 August 2011

Bible Historiale, Royal MS 19 D III

A highly illuminated page from a Bible Historiale, showing an illustration of God the Creator and a decorated border.

Miniature of God the Creator, Royal MS 19 D III, Vol. I, f. 3

More than one hundred copies of the Bible historiale survive, many of which were illuminated by the finest artists of the period, befitting their status as deluxe, often royal, books.  Indeed, some scholars translate the title of the work as a ‘historiated’ (illustrated) Bible, rather than as a history Bible.  The text itself was somewhat mutable.  Originally only the historical books of the Bible, abridged versions of Job and Proverbs, and a combined Gospels were included.  However, in the fourteenth century other biblical texts were added to make the Bible historiale closer to a French version of the Vulgate.  The present manuscript is unique in that it includes several apocryphal stories such as a Life of Judas and of Pilate apparently translated by Guyart des Moulins, but not included in any other known copy of the text.

This volume was copied by an Augustinian friar, Thomas du Val, of Clairfontaine Abbey, in the diocese of Chartres, who records that he finished the work in 1411, although he did not indicate its intended recipient.  Given the extraordinary richness of its illumination, it would not be surprising if this was a royal book.  At the beginning of Genesis is a stunning image of God as Creator with a pair of dividers to measure the world.  Behind him the background in red and blue is revealed, on closer inspection to be made up entirely of angels.  This unusual image perhaps illustrates the commentary to the beginning of Genesis, which notes that there are three heavens of different colours: crystal, white and red.

The Royal project team

04 August 2011

The Hours of Elizabeth the Queen

A page from the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen, showing an illustration of the Crucifixion and highly decorated frame.

Miniature of the Crucifixion, with an inscription below reading 'Elisabeth the quene', Add MS 50001, f. 22

The Hours of Elizabeth the Queen has been described as the most lavish Book of Hours produced in fifteenth-century England. The text itself contains three sequences of Hours: the Hours of the Virgin and also the Hours of the Cross and of the Passion together with a number of other devotional texts.  The illustration is particularly lavish.  In addition to the full-page images before important textual divisions the book includes an astonishing 423 painted initials with narrative or decorative scenes. 

The manuscript is known as the Hours of the Queen because of an inscription at the bottom of the pictured miniature of the Crucifixion: ‘Elisabeth the quene’.  This appears to be a signature of Elizabeth of York (d. 1503), daughter of Edward IV (1461-83) and wife of Henry VII (1485-1509).  However, the manuscript was not originally made for her.  Later in the volume (f. 152) is a prayer for the soul of Cecily or Cicely (d. 1450), Duchess of Warwick, and it is likely that the book was made for a member of her family, possibly her father, the powerful Richard Neville (b. 1400, d. 1460), 5th Earl of Salisbury, the nephew of Henry IV (1399-1413).  Thus this magnificent book was deemed important enough to have been passed to important members of English aristocracy, in this case, ultimately the daughter, wife, and mother of successive kings of England. 

The Royal project team

01 August 2011

A Calendar Page for August

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 August, with a scene of labourers finishing the harvest, threshing wheat and gathering it into sheaves inside a barn.

The calendar page for August, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Add MS 18851, f. 5

On this calendar page for August, the zodiac sign for Virgo (the Virgin) is depicted as a young woman holding a martyr's palm.  Below her a group of men continue labouring to finish the harvest, threshing wheat and gathering it into sheaves inside a timbered barn.