Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from September 2011

27 September 2011

Royal events at the British Library

In conjunction with the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, the British Library is hosting a number of events relating to the theme of the Royal library.

All events are priced at £7.50 (£5 for concessions). Tickets can be purchased from our Box Office.

18 November All That Glisters: the Art of Illumination Join Michelle Brown (Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies, University of London) and Patricia Lovett, calligrapher and illuminator, for an introduction to some of the key exhibits, and a demonstration of the techniques of writing and illumination.


21 November The Great Lost Library of England's Kings Nicholas Vincent (Professor of Medieval History, University of East Anglia) explores the fate of the books owned by kings from William the Conqueror to Henry III.

28 November The English Kingdom of France Historian and biographer Juliet Barker examines the English campaigns and occupation of France in the 15th century, in the wake of Henry V's victory at Agincourt.


SOLD OUT 12 December The Story of a Book Television presenter Michael Wood tells the story of one manuscript's journey from France to Italy and Anglo-Saxon England. Please note: this event is already sold out.

13 December The English Castle Expert John Goodall narrates the history of the use and development of castles in medieval England.


16 December The King of Beasts Author and researcher Deirdre Jackson presents a lavishly illustrated talk on the lion, a symbol of royalty for millennia.

23 September 2011

Beowulf in Hungarian ... and French ... and Telugu ...

Ever wondered what Beowulf sounds like in Dutch, Greek or Russian, or in Telugu, a Dravidian language spoken in parts of southern India? Here at the British Library we've had some fun creating the recordings found here, representing nine different modern languages.










Beowulf is perhaps the most famous Old English literary survival. An epic poem spanning more than 3,000 lines, Beowulf recounts the exploits of its eponymous hero and his combats with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel's revenge-seeking mother, and with a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. Experts are divided as to when the poem was composed; but it is found in just a single medieval manuscript, most likely made in the early decades of the 11th century, and now housed at the British Library (Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV).

We are indeed extremely fortunate that this manuscript has been preserved. It was damaged by fire in 1731, when the Cotton collection was housed at the aptly-named Ashburnham House in London; the Beowulf-manuscript can only be handled with the greatest care.


Photo of Mr Madhava Turumella, reading the Telugu translation of Beowulf (courtesy of Nigel Bewley, The British Library).

We are extremely grateful to all our readers (Marja Kingma, Karen Eeckman, Juan Garces, Dimitrios Skrekas, Ildiko Wollner, Laura Nuvoloni, Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Irina Lester and Madhava Turumella), and to Nigel Bewley of the British Library's Sound and Vision for making the recordings.

20 September 2011

John Lydgate's Lives of Saints

John Lydgate, The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund

Bury St Edmunds, c. 1434 - 1439

British Library, Harley 2278


Miniature of Henry VI kneeling before the shrine of St Edmund, Harley 2278, f. 4v

In 1433 the young King Henry VI (just eleven years old) spent Christmas through Easter at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds.  In honour of the visit the abbot William Curteys commissioned an English version of the Life of the abbey’s patron saint from one of the abbey’s monks, the author and poet John Lydgate (b. c.1370, d. 1449/50?).  Lydgate combined the story of Edmund’s life with that of a more obscure saint, Fremund, supposedly Edmund’s nephew.  This lavish and heavily illustrated copy of the text — it has 118 painted illustrations — was probably written under Lydgate’s direct supervision at the abbey as a presentation copy for the King.  It is one of only a few surviving copies of the Life, and the most copiously illustrated.  The image pictured here is that of the kneeling King before the shrine of St Edmund at the abbey.  Although the shrine has since disappeared, in design it appears very similar to that of Edward the Confessor, still beyond the high altar in Westminster abbey today.

Henry VI developed a reputation for piety and poverty — qualities not necessarily viewed as appropriate for a king.  He was criticised in his own time for failing to dress with suitable magnificence, and for excessive generosity.  This impressive manuscript may have been one of his gifts: a later inscription shows that it came into the possession of John Touchet (d. 1559), 8th Baron Audley, who apparently returned it to the Old Royal Library as a gift to Henry VIII, perhaps in thanks for the restoration of his titles in 1512. 

- Royal project team

13 September 2011

Monarchs, Lions and 'Nostra-dumbass': The Royal Exhibition in the Press

The Royal project team is delighted by the press coverage so far regarding the upcoming exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

Coverage of the exhibition has centred on the revelations the dazzling books offer into the private and public lives of English kings, from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors. The Guardian announced, 'British Library digs out decorative paintings to brighten up dark ages,' Reuters observed 'Illuminated manuscripts light up medieval monarchs,' and the Daily Telegraph remarked upon the exhibition's aim to 'shine a light' on medieval monarchs.

Adopting a narrower focus, the Independent featured one of the exciting objects on loan for the exhibition, a lion skull. The Daily Mail delved into the story of an astrology book whose predictions were horribly wrong.

China Central Television’s video coverage of the press briefing features some of the exhibition highlights, along with insights from Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics at the British Library:


- Royal project team

Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne

Nicolas Finet, Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne

Brussels, c. 1468

British Library, Additional 7970

K90032-14 Add 7970 f. 1v

Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ, Additional 7970, f. 1v

The present manuscript is a unique copy of a devotional text written for Margaret of York (b. 1446, d. 1503), the sister of Edward IV.  Her marriage in 1468 to Charles the Bold (1467 - 1477), Duke of Burgundy, one of the richest men in Europe, was one of the most stylistic ceremonies of the century and the artistic and other fashions of the Burgundian court proved highly influential in the Lancastrian court.  As Duchess, Margaret commissioned the work from her almoner, or chaplain, Nicolas Finet.  The result was the Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne à Jesus Christ, a deeply personalised text in which Margaret receives instruction directly from Christ and is urged to contemplate his living presence. 

The work is personalised still further with an image of the Duchess herself in her private chamber experiencing a vision of Christ.  In composition this image is similar to the familiar Noli me tangere scenes of Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene; perhaps the Duchess was being encouraged to emulate the piety of other holy women such as the Madgalene.  Margaret’s arms as Duchess of Burgundy appear in the lower border, together her device Ben en aviegne (May good come of it) and her initial entwined with that of her husband Charles’s.  Like other Books of Hours, this manuscript may never have been part of a royal or ducal library.  A year before her death Margaret gave the manuscript to her friend and lady-in-waiting Jeanne de Hallewin (d. 1529), Lady of Wassenaer, and recorded this gift in an autograph dedication at the end of the volume. 

- Royal project team

09 September 2011

Erasing Becket

Recently we’ve had a number of enquiries asking about instances of erasure, removal, or striking out of references to St Thomas of Canterbury in some of our manuscripts (one example can be seen above).  It is actually fairly common to find such 'cancellations' in English medieval manuscripts (or those that remained in England throughout the time of the Protestant Reformation), and they can be seen particularly in devotional manuscripts such as Books of Hours or Psalters.

A page from a 15th-century Book of Hours, showing an illustration of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the beginning of his suffrage, which is struck through in accordance with the suppression of the saint’s cult under Henry VIII, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), France (Rouen), c. 1430 – 1440, Harley MS 2900, f. 56v

To some extent these removals can be seen as part of the Reformation’s project of iconoclasm, and the efforts to eliminate idolatry and ‘superstition’ from the religion of England. But even bearing this in mind, it is nonetheless true that Thomas Becket and his cult were uniquely singled out for suppression by the architects of the Reformation, for a number of reasons.

In medieval England devotion to St Thomas of Canterbuy was widespread and passionate; before the Reformation there were more parish churches dedicated to him than to any other English saint.  His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral was visited by countless pilgrims (including those described by Geoffrey Chaucer), from all across Europe, and it was the site of hundreds of reported miracles.  It was also extremely wealthy, with many visitors and believers making offerings, and its status as the premier site of devotion and pilgrimage may have made it a target. 

But it is more likely that it was St Thomas’ own history as a ‘turbulent priest’ that made the suppression of his cult desirable for Henry VIII and his advisers.  As Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket fiercely espoused the independence of the Church from royal authority, and his murder in 1170 by soldiers of Henry II made him a martyr and a popular hero.  For Henry VIII the lesson was clear - a religious leader who had defied the king and been canonized for it was a dangerous precedent during a time of great religious change.

St Thomas is mentioned by name in many of the early Royal Injunctions that sought to abolish the ‘most detestable sin of idolatry.’  In September 1538 his shrine was dismantled, its treasure removed and carted away, and his bones disinterred and possibly burnt.  The physical destruction of his shrine was followed several months later by an edict attempting to destroy his reputation and renown.

A Royal Proclamation of 16 November 1538 was issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, attributing St Thomas’ death, ‘untruly called martyrdom,’ to a riot begun by the ‘opprobrious words’ and ‘stubbornness’ of Thomas himself.  Because ‘there appeareth nothing in his life and exterior conversation whereby he should be called a saint,’ the Royal Proclamation ordered that Thomas instead was ‘rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince.’

The Proclamation concluded that ‘henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed and called a saint… and that his images and pictures throughout the whole realm shall be plucked down, and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places; and that from henceforth the days used to be festival in his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’

A decorated text page from a 15th-century Book of Hours, with references to Thomas Becket erased.

Text page with illuminated initial ‘L’(aude) and text, with references to Thomas Becket erased, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 22, f. 25

A calendar page for December from the Queen Mary Psalter, with the feast day of Thomas Becket erased.

Calendar page for December, with the feast of St Thomas erased, Psalter (‘The Queen Mary Psalter’), England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 83

Although public response to this Proclamation, and others that followed, could fairly be described as mixed, within several years the Reformation had mostly succeeded in destroying most of the public representations of Thomas Becket (such as paintings and statues in churches). This was also largely the case with manuscripts of the time; for the most part, the owners of these manuscripts obeyed the Proclamations, but levels of compliance could vary greatly. 

For example, references to Thomas Becket could be ‘gently’ removed, by the careful erasure or striking through of particular words.  This can be seen above, in a page from a 15th century Book of Hours in which several instances of Thomas’ name have been erased, or in the December calendar page from the Queen Mary Psalter, where the feast of St Thomas (29 December) has been scraped away (also above, in the third line from the bottom).

An opening from a 15th-century Book of Hours, showing an illustration of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, with the facing text of his suffrage excised from the manuscript.

Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and excision of the suffrage of Thomas Becket, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd  quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30

In some manuscripts an effort seems to have been made to excise all textual references to St Thomas, but occasionally the accompanying images do not seem to have been targeted.  This is particularly evident in this 15th century Book of Hours, in which portions of a folio containing prayers to the saint are neatly cut away, but the facing folio with a full-page miniature of the St Thomas’ martyrdom remains unaltered.

An opening from Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, showing an illustration of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket facing the beginning of his suffrage.

Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and the beginning of his suffrage, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, Kings MS 9, ff. 38v-39

There are very few manuscripts that seem to have been left utterly unscathed; interestingly, one of these (see above) was used by Henry VIII.  Notes to and from the king and Anne Boleyn (before their marriage) can be found in the margins of this Book of Hours, so it is clear that Henry knew the manuscript well.  It is strange, therefore, that the miniature of St Thomas’ martyrdom and the following folio with his suffrage were left unaltered, and there is as yet no explanation for their remarkable survival.

Sarah J Biggs

06 September 2011

A Stunning Tudor Binding: Henry VII's Quadripartite Indenture

Quadripartite Indenture (the 'Harley Indenture')

London, 1504

British Library, Harley 1498

Harley_1498_back binding open

Back binding of the indenture, Harley 1498

Very few medieval or Tudor bindings survive; this is a particularly impressive example.  It is a ‘chemise’ binding (or cloth cover) in red velvet lined with damask that may have been imported from Italy.  This chemise wrapper covers four indentures, or series of agreements, between Henry VII and the monks of Westminster Abbey dated 1504.  Two copies of the indenture were made and, remarkably, both survive with their original bindings—the current volume and the other now in The National Archives (E 33/1).  Attached to the covers of both are a series of bosses in silver gilt and enamel, decorated with the King’s emblems.  Five original wax seals with impressions of the King also survive; these are affixed to the documents and authenticate the covenants contained within them.  The upper edges of the pages are cut in curved lines, consistent with more typical indentures on parchment sheets that were cut apart so that they could be fit back together upon redemption or to verify the authenticity of claimed contractual obligations. 


Miniature of Henry VII presenting the indenture to John Islip, Abbot of Westminster Abbey, Harley 1498, f. 1

The grandeur of these indentures is demonstrated as well by the fact that each begins with an illustration and a painted border.  Here the border is decorated with the Beaufort portcullises of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and his arms, held by his supporters, a dragon and a white dog. In the initial Henry hands the indenture to John Islip (b. 1464, d. 1532), the abbot of Westminster, who kneels before him.

- Royal project team

01 September 2011

A Calendar Page for September

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

  C11402-01Additional 18851, f. 5v: calendar page for September

This calendar page, for the month of September, depicts the zodiac sign for Libra as a young woman holding a set of scales.  The scene below shows the preparations for wine-making, with workers in a stone and timber building pouring wine into vats and treading grapes.