Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

12 posts from October 2011

28 October 2011

Digitised Manuscripts update

The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site was launched in September 2010, and currently attracts more than 24,000 page views each month. Our first upload comprised 284 Greek manuscripts, and we have periodically added more content, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Old English Hexateuch and autograph manuscripts of William Blake and JS Bach.

Homer, Odyssey, 15th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 6325, f 1r

Another 74 Greek manuscripts have now been added to this list, containing approximately 25,000 images. The British Library is privileged to house such a significant collection of manuscripts written in the Greek language, ranging in date from the 3rd century B.C. to the present, and constituting arguably the largest and most important resource outside Greece for the study of Hellenic culture.

Each manuscript featured in Digitised Manuscripts contains full digital coverage, and a description of the item's contents, date and origin. The site benefits from the deep zoom technology that underpins the viewer, allowing users to zoom in on images at great speed and with very detailed results. We recommend that you use the Browse facility to see a list of all manuscripts found on the site.

A collection of divinations and magic, 15th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 5596, f 3v

The digitisation of our Greek manuscripts has been generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The most recent upload features items ranging in date from the 11th to the 18th century, and includes a 14th-century Psalterworks of St Basil of Caesarea copied in the 14th century, a 15th-century copy of Homer's Odysseya collection of divinations and writings on magic, and a Greek-Latin dictionary copied in about 1420.

Here is a comprehensive listing of all the Greek manuscripts recently added to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts.

Harley 1675 

Copies of Greek and Latin texts with notes by Toussaint Berchet (d. 1607), after 1590

Harley 1771

Homer, Iliad, 15th century

Harley 1814

Dionysius Periegetes, Orbis descriptio, 15th century

Harley 1868

Cassianus Bassus, Geoponica, 14th century

Harley 3100

Suda, 15th century

Harley 3329

In Sacra Biblia Graeca ex versione LXX, 17th century

Harley 3382

Selections from Claudius Aelian, De animalium natura libri xvii, 17th century

Harley 3521

Collection of notes and extracts, 17th century

Harley 4767

Lycophron, Alexandra, 17th century

Harley 5534

Psalter, 14th century

Harley 5539

Works of Agapetus diaconus and Basil I 'the Macedonian', 15th century

Harley 5549

Life of Hartmann Beyer (1516-1577), by Philipp Reinhart, ?1580

Harley 5554

Nomocanon of Manuel Malaxos, 1675

Harley 5556

Gerasimus, Patriarch of Alexandria, On Communion, etc., 1714

Harley 5560

Sindbad (Syntipas) the philosopher, Tale of the king, his son, and the 7 sages, 1667

Harley 5561

Euchologion, with readings from the Epistles and Gospels, 13th-15th century

Harley 5564

Epiphanius of Salamis, De duodecim gemmis, 16th century

Harley 5570

Psalms and Odes etc., 16th century

Harley 5574

Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, 17th century

Harley 5575

Euthymius Zigabenus, Ps.-Nonnus, Nicholas of Andida etc., 1281

Harley 5576

Works of St Basil of Caesarea etc., 14th century

Harley 5577

Works of Dionysius Periegetes and Eustathius of Thessalonica, 15th century

Harley 5581

Menaion, 14th century

Harley 5588

New Testament, 13th century

Harley 5590

Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on the Psalms, 16th century

Harley 5592

Photius, Bibliotheca, 16th century

Harley 5593

Works of Photius, Aristides, Philip of Side etc., 1555

Harley 5596

Divinations, magic, etc., 15th century

Harley 5599

Aristotle, 15th century

Harley 5602

St John Chrysostom, Homiliae 1-55 in Acta Apostolorum, 12th century

Harley 5603

Metaphrastan Menologion for October, 11th century

Harley 5607

Hilarion Cigalas, Archbishop of Cyprus, Synodikon in hexameters, 17th century

Harley 5608

Missal of Dominican use, 15th century

Harley 5609

Works of St Basil of Caesarea and Isocrates, 15th century

Harley 5610

Epistolographi Graeci, 14th century

Harley 5619

St John Damascenus, Barlaam and Josaphat, c.1590

Harley 5623

Liturgica, 13th-17th century

Harley 5626

Medical writings of Aetius and Hippocrates, 16th century

Harley 5630

Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, 16th century

Harley 5637

Collations of Polyainos, Strategemata, 17th century

Harley 5645

Themistius, 17th century

Harley 5663

Collection of fragments, 16th century

Harley 5666

Commentary on St Gregory, In laudem S. Basilii Magni, etc., 16th century

Harley 5672

Homer, Iliad, 15th century

Harley 5675

Canon Law, 16th century

Harley 5678

Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite, 15th century

Harley 5679

Dioscorides, 15th century

Harley 5685

Nemesius and Proclus, 12th century

Harley 5691

Works of Manuel Bryennios, etc., 15th-16th century

Harley 5692

Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae, 14th century

Harley 5697

Ιoannes Chortasmenos, Metropolites of Selymbria, 15th century

Harley 5727

Scholia on Homer, Iliad I-XIX, 15th-16th century

Harley 5734

Theological miscellany, 16th century

Harley 5782

Synaxarion (Lives of Saints), 1362-63

Harley 5783

Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, 1601

Harley 5784

Four Gospels, 15th century

Harley 5790

Four Gospels, 1478

Harley 5795

Iamblichus, 16th century

Harley 6302

Formulary for letters to ecclesiastics, etc., 17th century

Harley 6304

Nomocanon, 1713

Harley 6307

Aristophanes, Plutus, Nubes and Ranae, 15th century

Harley 6309

Mechanica, 17th century

Harley 6310

Collection of fragments, 16th century

Harley 6311A

Demosthenes, De corona, 15th century

Harley 6313

Greek-Latin dictionary, circa 1420

Harley 6316

Ecclesiastical History, 16th century

Harley 6317

Military treatises by Athenaeus, Biton and Leo VI, ?1563

Harley 6322

Demosthenes, Aeschines, Synesius, 15th century

Harley 6325

Homer, Odyssey, 15th century

Harley 6462

Greek grammar in Latin, before 1715

Harley 6478

Epigrams from the Palatine Anthology, before 1713

Harley 6874

Aristotle, 15th century

Harley 6876

Geoponica, c. 1700-1703

Harley 7576

Miscellany, 1588-1724


26 October 2011

Alexander versus the World

Many classical heroes of both history and literature enjoyed colourful afterlives in the Middle Ages. In popular medieval accounts, they were positioned as ancestral figures, heroes of romance and compelling role models for kings and princes. Our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, includes such enduring figures as Julius Caesar, Hector, Hercules and Alexander the Great.


Miniature of Alexander the Great in battle with dragons, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 49v.

We know Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) as the conqueror of much of the ancient world. By the time of his early death (he died of fever at the age of 32), he had won territories from Egypt to India and made a lasting name for himself as a brilliant military commander and strategist. Accounts of his life and exploits are known from an early period, in various versions and in a number of different languages. One of the most popular of these was the tenth-century Historia de Preliis Alexandri Magni (The History of the Battles of Alexander the Great), which, in turn, was the basis for an anonymous French version, the Vraye ystoire du bon roy Alixandre (The True History of the Good King Alexander).


Medieval accounts of Alexander’s adventures and exploits lend themselves well to illustration. This Royal collection copy of the French Vraye ystoire (Royal 20 B. xx) is particularly splendid, with eighty-six illustrations of Alexander’s adventures.  It was made in Paris in c. 1420-25. At that time, Paris was English territory, following Henry V’s military victories in France and the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, and it was also the unrivalled artistic centre of Europe. The artist of most of the paintings to be found throughout the volume is named after this manuscript – as the Master of the Royal Alexander.  His skill is evident in the image above, of Alexander, identifiable by his crown, fighting dragons, and below, in the miniature of Alexander, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins. 

A80011-05a Royal 20 B xx f. 76v detail

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 76v.

As a great general, Alexander was a fitting role model for young princes and kings, particularly during the troubled period of the Hundred Years War, when a ruler’s military prowess was so important.  It is unclear whether this book was intended for a royal owner from the start, although the quantity and sophistication of its illustrations are certainly grand enough. Whoever its original owner might have been, by the mid-sixteenth century it had indeed found a royal home: the added inscription ‘HR’ (Henricus Rex) at the beginning of the book indicates that the volume eventually found its way into the library of Henry VIII. 

- Royal project team

24 October 2011

Royal App special offer

Don't miss this opportunity to buy the British Library's Royal App, on special offer until 11 November.


The App features 58 stunning medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012). It contains 500 high-resolution images of some of the best surviving examples of medieval painting in England. Six expert videos explain the history of items such as the Psalter of Henry VIII, commissioned and annotated by the king himself, and the Shrewsbury Book, presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to Henry VI in 1445. You can see images of the Psalter of Henry VIII and the Shrewsbury Book in a previous post.

"Royal Manuscripts" is available for download world-wide.

From the iTunes App Store for iPhone (and iPod Touch): UK £2.99 (US $4.99)

From the Android Marketplace: UK £2.99 (US $4.99)

SPECIAL OFFER: £1.49 (US $1.99) until 11 November 2011

"Royal Manuscripts HD"

From the iTunes App Store for iPad: UK £3.99 (US $5.99)

From the Android Marketplace: UK £3.99 (US $5.99)

SPECIAL OFFER: £2.49 (US $3.99) until 11 November 2011

You can read more here about the British Library's Apps.

21 October 2011

The Luttrell Psalter on film

One of the (very many) joys of working at the British Library is being able to see the wonderful ways that people make use of our illuminated manuscripts. We recently came across a creative interpretation of one of the British Library's great treasures, the Luttrell Psalter, which can be seen on our Turning the Pages

C6172-06 f 202v

Miniature of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell with his wife and his daughter-in-law, c. 1320 - 1340, England (Lincolnshire), Additional MS 42130 (the Luttrell Psalter), f. 202v

The Luttrell Psalter was created c. 1320 - 1340 in Lincolnshire, and was named after its first owner and patron, the wealthy lord and landowner Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345).  As well as the usual kinds of images for a Psalter of its time - paintings of King David (believed to have been the author of the Psalms), saints, and the life of Christ - the Luttrell Psalter contains some truly remarkable and detailed scenes of daily life.  Many of these are so-called bas-de-page (or 'bottom of the page') illuminations of people working and playing (and occasionally misbehaving), which offer us an insight into the rural life of medieval England.

C6164-06 f. 170v detail

C6164-07 f 171 detail

Details of bas-de-page scenes of a man sowing a field, and two men plowing, c. 1320 - 1340, England (Lincolnshire), Additional MS 42130 (the Luttrell Psalter), ff. 170v-171

Inspired by these scenes, a group called WAG Screen, based in the Psalter's native county of Lincolnshire, recently produced a short film - appropriately titled The Luttrell Psalter Film.  Shot over the course of a year to capture the changing seasons, and involving dozens of cast, crew, and researchers, the result is a beautiful and evocative treatment of the Luttrell Psalter's exceptional images.  You can watch it on WAG Screen's site or on YouTube.  More details about the project are available on their blog.  We are told that another film is in the works, based on the Psalter's images of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell and his privileged way of life. 

- Sarah J Biggs

18 October 2011

A Prayerbook Fit for a Queen?

Books which belonged to medieval women are relatively rare survivals. Our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, assembles a fascinating assortment of books made for, and owned by, aristocratic women. Some of these books are personalised, with contents chosen, or even written, for a specific female recipient. Certain manuscripts contain inscriptions in the hands of their female owners, or record in the calendar the events that shaped the fortunes of their families.

011LAN000000383U00165V00owner and virginThe book's female owner kneeling as a supplicant before the Virgin and Child, Lansdowne 383, f. 165v.

The manuscript known today as the Shaftesbury Psalter (Lansdowne 383) is the earliest example in our exhibition of a book made for a woman. Though this Psalter’s original owner has not left any marks of identification, it seems to have been created with a specific owner in mind.

It was once supposed that the book was made for a female aristocrat connected to the nunnery of Shaftesbury (Dorset). One of the nunnery’s patron saints was Edward the Martyr (d. 978), an Anglo-Saxon king who was murdered on the orders of his stepmother, Ælfthryth, and succeeded by his half-brother, the infamous Æthelred the Unready. Edward’s body was disposed of unceremoniously after his murder, but his remains were eventually interred at Shaftesbury. The mention of St Edward in the calendar and litany might suggest that this Psalter was intended for use at the nunnery.

011LAN000000383U00004000calendarCalendar page for March, containing the feast day of St Edward the Martyr, Lansdowne 383, f. 4.

This supposition is challenged, however, by the prominent textual presence of St Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht, who was martyred in 705. It is difficult to explain why a Shaftesbury nun should cherish a particular devotion to this Netherlandish saint. On the other hand, it is quite credible that this Psalter could have been copied from a Shaftesbury model for an aristocratic woman who hailed from the Netherlands. Some scholars have therefore concluded that this book may have been made for Adeliza of Louvain (d. 1151).

Adeliza was the second wife of King Henry I of England (r. 1100-1135). Henry is notorious for having fathered a large number of illegitimate children. In 1120, his only legitimate male heir, William Ætheling, drowned when the White Ship was shipwrecked in the English Channel. Left without a clear line of succession, Henry remarried in 1121 and set about trying to father an heir with his young and, it is said, very beautiful new wife, Adeliza. He did not succeed.

011LAN000000383U00014V00owner portraitAn aristocratic woman, possibly Adeliza of Louvain, kneeling before Christ, Lansdowne 383, f. 14v.

Adeliza had no children during her marriage to Henry, but in her time as queen she did establish herself as a patron of Anglo-Norman poetry. Philippe de Thaon dedicated to the young queen his Bestiaire, an Anglo-Norman verse translation of the Latin bestiary, while the popular Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan was rededicated to her (its original patron was Matilda, Henry’s first queen). Adeliza may also have commissioned a verse biography of her royal husband, though it does not survive.

After Henry’s death in 1135, England was plunged into civil war. Within a few years of the king’s death, Adeliza married Henry’s hereditary butler, William d’Aubigny (d. 1176), and subsequently gave birth to seven children who survived to adulthood. If this Psalter belonged to Adeliza, it would have seen her through the later years of her life, in which she raised a family amid England’s political tumult, before retiring to the Flemish monastery at Affligem, where she died in 1151.

- Royal project team

17 October 2011

The English captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots

A new display focusing on the last years of Mary, Queen of Scots, as a prisoner in England has opened at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library. It draws on unique documents and manuscripts from the British Library’s own archives, as well as a private collection of previously unknown letters relating to Mary's captivity under the supervision of Sir Ralph Sadler during 1584-1585.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary was a popular ruler until her disastrous marriages, first to Lord Darnley in 1565 and then to the Earl of Bothwell in 1567, who, along with Mary, was implicated in Darnley’s murder. On 16 May 1568, Mary fled to England after being forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year old son, the future James I of England. Mary fully expected her cousin, Elizabeth I, to support her efforts to regain the Scottish throne. Instead, Mary was held in Carlisle Castle under the close guard of Elizabeth’s councillor, Sir Francis Knollys.

Cotton Caligula C i, f. 218
Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots to Sir Francis Knollys, 1 September 1568: London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula C.i, f. 218r. 

On 1 September 1568, Mary wrote this letter to Knollys asking him to intercede with Elizabeth on her behalf. It was the first letter that Mary, who had been raised in France, penned in English and at the foot of the letter she asks Knollys to ‘Excus my ivel vreitin thes furst tym’ ('Excuse my evil writing this first time').

Mary would remain under house arrest until she was finally brought to trial in 1586, for complicity in the Babington plot to murder Elizabeth and to place Mary herself on the throne. Despite Elizabeth’s indecision and reluctance to execute an anointed sovereign, Mary was beheaded on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire.

Contemporary pen-and-ink drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: London, British Library, Additional MS 48027, f. 650*

This pen-and-ink sketch, from the papers of Robert Beale, Clerk of the Privy Council, shows Mary three times: entering the great hall; being attended by her gentlewomen on the scaffold; and, finally, lying at the block with the executioner's axe raised ready to strike.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery is the British Library's permanent exhibition space, is open 7 days a week, and is free to all visitors. It currently hosts great treasures such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Magna Carta, in addition to the Mary, Queen of Scots' display.

Andrea Clarke

14 October 2011

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

The British Library's exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination showcases the most precious manuscripts owned by the kings and queens of England. A large number of these books entered the Royal collection during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), when the libraries of the English monasteries were dispersed.

However, many of the manuscripts in medieval monastic libraries were not highly decorative, instead being used as part of the daily routine of study and of reading out loud at mealtimes and in chapel. We value these books for their beautiful script and decorated initials, for the texts they contain, and for what they can teach us about medieval monastic life.

Many of these lesser-known monastic manuscripts are found in the Royal collection. Here are two examples.

Royal 5 B XII

The Benedictine priory at the Cathedral of St Andrew in Rochester, founded by King Æthelberht of Kent at the beginning of the 7th century, was home to a productive scriptorium in the hundred years following the Norman Conquest. Many religious works were copied or obtained for the library, including this one containing works of St Augustine of Hippo. 

The Rochester library catalogue, 1202: London, British Library, MS. Royal 5 B XII, f. 2r

Of particular interest are the front pages which contain a catalogue of the library, originally compiled in or around 1202, with additions by later scribes. The first page of the catalogue lists works by the most important early theologians, Augustine (beati augustini) and Gregory the Great (beati gregorii) in the first column, followed by Ambrose, Jerome and Bede. These are followed by Bibles and other theological works, saints’ Lives, service books and secular works of history, grammar and philosophy.

Sometimes the size and condition of a book are recorded and how they were stored, either in cupboards or chests. Contemporary book lists from other monasteries such as Reading and Durham record similar works to the Rochester catalogue, providing an insight into the texts that the monks typically possessed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Rochester anathema: London, British Library, MS. Royal 5 B XII, f. 4v

Close to 100 books from the Rochester library are now in the Royal collection, including 14 containing writings of St Augustine, whose works were considered fundamental to monastic study. Books from Rochester are easy to identify as they usually bear an inscription on the first page, Liber de claustro Roffensi, often followed by an anathema, threatening with excommunication anyone who borrows the book and does not return it. The inscription can be seen at the bottom of the opening page of Augustine's De doctrina christiana, a text on Christian doctrine.

Royal 1 C III

This large Bible is a rare version of part of the Old Testament in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French spoken in England in the Middle Ages. It belonged to Reading Abbey and was probably copied there in the 14th century. The manuscript is written in a rather informal cursive handwriting, of the type often used to copy documents, as it was quicker to write than formal gothic script. Initials in red and blue are the only decoration.


The Old Testament in Anglo-Norman: London, British Library, MS. Royal 1 C III, f. 185r

At this time French was being replaced by English as the most popular language in England and so standards of French were declining, even among scholarly monks in a great Norman monastery such as Reading. In the text, English words are substituted or inserted after French words which may have been unfamiliar to the scribe. For example in the 14th line, figures et affaitementz is followed by the English translation ‘schappes’ (shapes).

The Benedictine abbey at Reading had a large, well-stocked library, which was dispersed when the monastery was dissolved during the Reformation. This Bible appears to have entered Henry VIII’s library in 1530, having probably been delivered to Hampton Court as part of a consignment of books from Reading, of which some 15 have been identified in the Royal collection.


Chantry Westwell 



11 October 2011

The Royal Exhibition on Facebook

Curious about the manuscripts featured in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination? Wishing you could attend the exhibition, but unable to do so?


We are pleased to announce that images of all of the British Library manuscripts featured in the exhibition will soon be viewable on our Facebook page! So far, 42 exhibition highlights have been posted and more will be added in the coming weeks. Even if you do not have a Facebook account, you can:

- Royal project team