Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from November 2011

29 November 2011

Praying to the King

K90049-89 Royal 6 E ix ff. 10v-11

London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E. ix, ff. 10v-11

This image may be familiar to those of you who have already visited our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. It was painted in Tuscany around 1335, and depicts Robert of Anjou, King of Naples (1309-1343), sitting on his throne, facing the personification of Italy as a mourning woman.

This spectacular vision of kingship occurs within a poem known as Carmina regia, surviving in only three copies. The Royal manuscript (Royal 6 E. ix) is huge in scale, at nearly 500 mm high (around 1½ feet), and is also the grandest of the three in the scope of its illustration and richness of decorative detail, visible here in the robes of the king and the patterning of the fleurs-de-lis background. Parts of the text of the poem are embedded within the petals of the flowers. This manuscript may even be the presentation copy made for Robert of Anjou, to whom the poem was addressed.

The city of Prato, personified in the poem, beseeches Robert for protection, to unite Italy, and to restore the papacy to Rome from Avignon, where it had moved in 1309. The originality and scale of the work and its illustrations must have been well-received by Robert, a renowned bibliophile (though it did not move him to act on the citizens’ requests).

The manuscript’s path to the English Old Royal Library is less clear. Several Angevin manuscripts entered the libraries of Charles V, King of France (1364-1380), and his brother John, Duke of Berry (b. 1340, d. 1416). The entire French royal library, kept at the Louvre, was acquired in 1422 by the English general John, Duke of Bedford (b. 1389, d. 1435), following the death of King Charles VI. Bedford served as Regent of France on behalf of the infant English king Henry VI (1422-1461, 1470-1471), so perhaps this magnificent royal book became the property of the English kings through Bedford's offices.

- Royal project team

24 November 2011

Digitised Manuscripts 500 landmark

The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts was launched on 27 September 2010. Just over a year on, we have now published online and in its entirety our 500th item.

The most recent upload comprises another 75 Greek manuscripts (approximately 26,000 images), ranging in date from the 9th century to the 18th century. Items in Greek currently constitute by far the greatest part of Digitised Manuscripts, and we hope that, by digitising these manuscripts in full, and by providing enhanced descriptions, we have revolutionised access to this hugely important resource. We are extremely grateful to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for its generosity and foresight in funding this project.

Aretaeus, De curatione diuturnorum morborum, Book II, 16th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 6326, f. 2r

Digitised Manuscripts at present contains images of 508 items from the British Library's wide-ranging collections, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Bach autograph, Civil War papers, India Office records, and Thai astrological drawings. Apart from our Greek manuscripts, more medieval content, comprising scientific books in Latin and various western European vernacular languages, will be published to the site in the coming months.

A full list of the recent Greek upload is given below. Among the highlights are a 9th century copy of Basil of Caesarea’s In Hexaemeron, a 16th century volume of Psalms and Proverbs in English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek, works of St John Chrysostom and St Basil of Ancyra dating from the 11th century, and a copy of Homer’s Odyssey dating from 1479.

Aristophanes, Plutus and Nubes, 15th century: London, British Library, MS Arundel 530, inside front cover

Add 5422

Appian of Alexandria, Historia Romana, 16th century

Arundel 211

Greek-Latin dictionary, 17th century

Arundel 518

Georgios Boustronios, Chronicle of Cyprus, 16th century

Arundel 522

Works of Hesiod and Euripides, 1489

Arundel 523

Constantine Manasses, Chronicle, 1312–1313

Arundel 524

Four Gospels, 11th century

Arundel 525

Letters of Phalaris, 1470

Arundel 526

Manuel Chrysoloras, Erotemata, 15th century

Arundel 528

Compilation for Makarios, Bishop of Helicz, 15th century

Arundel 530

Aristophanes, Plutus and Nubes, 15th century

Arundel 532

Basil of Caesarea, In Hexaemeron, 9th century

Arundel 533

Works of Theodoros Balsamon, 14th century

Arundel 534

Theophylact of Bulgaria, Commentary on the Letters of Paul, 14th century

Arundel 535

Ascetic works of Isaac the Syrian, 14th century

Arundel 537

Medical tracts, 15th century

Arundel 538

Hippocratic works, 15th/16th century

Arundel 540

Euripides, Hecuba, Orestes and Phoenissae, 15th century

Arundel 541

Grammatical works of Hermogenes, 15th century

Arundel 544

St John Chrysostom, In Ioannem, 14th century

Arundel 545

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 15th century

Arundel 546

Works of Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Palladius of Helenopolis, 16th century

Arundel 548

Elements of Euclid, 16th century

Arundel 549

Sermons of St Gregory of Nazianzus, 11th century

Harley 825

Letters of Ephraim Pagitt, 1635

Harley 931

Extracts from the Psalms and St Paul, 1623

Harley 1686

Cassianus Bassus, Geoponica, 16th century

Harley 1752

Collection of Hymns and Epigrams, 15th century

Harley 1837

Collations of the Greek Bible, c. 1640–1659

Harley 2427

Psalms and Proverbs in English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek, 16th century

Harley 3318

Works of Philipp Melanchthon and others, 17th century

Harley 5051

Extracts from Greek and Latin authors, 17th century

Harley 5232

Anonymous commentary on the Apophthegmata, 16th century

Harley 5533

Psalter, 12th century

Harley 5542

Tetrastichs on the New and Old Testaments, 16th century

Harley 5544

Kekragaria, with late Byzantine notation, 17th century

Harley 5547

Plato and Aristides, 15th century

Harley 5565

Extracts from Plato, 16th century

Harley 5568

Polybius, 'Excerpta Antiqua', 16th century

Harley 5571

Psalms and Odes, 15th century

Harley 5572

Greek Lexikon, 13th century

Harley 5589

Heron of Alexandria, 16th century

Harley 5591

Photius, Bibliotheca, 16th century

Harley 5597

Collection of fragments, 15th/16th century

Harley 5605

Heron of Alexandria, Pneumatica and De automatis, 16th century

Harley 5614

Liturgies, 15th/16th century

Harley 5618

Hephaestion, Enchiridion de metris, c. 1453–1470

Harley 5631

Chronicle of Constantinople, 1555

Harley 5633

Nectarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Περὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ πάπα ἀντίρρησις, 1672–1682

Harley 5638

Plutarch and Philostratus, 16th Century

Harley 5643

Patristic miscellany, c. 1600

Harley 5646

Patristica, 16th century

Harley 5653

Psalter, 15th century

Harley 5654

Letters of scholars, 17th century

Harley 5656

Grammatical extracts from Herodian, Tryphon, 15th century

Harley 5658

Homer, Odyssey, 1479

Harley 5668

Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato's Gorgias, 16th century

Harley 5677

Nicetas, Metropolites of Heraclea, Catena on the Psalms, 17th century

Harley 5689

St John Chrysostom and St Basil of Ancyra, 11th century

Harley 5777

Four Gospels, 15th century

Harley 6290

Grammatica, 15th century

Harley 6296

Porphyrius, De abstinentia, 17th century

Harley 6297

Michael Glykas, Letters, 1595

Harley 6299

Priscian, Psellus, Adamantius, Themistius, 15th century

Harley 6300

Euripides, Hecuba, Orestes and Phoenissae, 16th century

Harley 6303

Greek-Latin dictionary, 17th century

Harley 6305

Galen, c. 1500

Harley 6318

Johannes Stobaeus, Anthology, Books 1 and 2, 16th century

Harley 6319

Lycophron, 16th century

Harley 6323

Ovid, Hesiod, Oracula Sibyllina, 15th century

Harley 6326

Aretaeus, 16th century

Harley 6473

Extracts from J. G. Graevius, Thesaurus Antiquitatum Romanarum, 1697–1698

Harley 6506

Chrysoloras, 15th century

Harley 6510

Epitome of Livy, Greek glossary, 15th century

Harley 6875

Constantine Lascaris, Grammar, 16th century

Harley 6943

Miscellaneous correspondence of John Covel, D.D., 1672–1711

23 November 2011

Harley Science Project

What is the best cure for toothache? How do we calculate the date of Easter? What does a phoenix look like?

To answer these and similar questions, the British Library has embarked on a project to digitise some of its most prestigious medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts. Generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger, the project will supply complete coverage of selected items from the Harley collection, augmented by revised catalogue records for the books in question.

Medieval and early modern manuscripts are vital for transmitting ancient scientific thought to the modern world. The texts they contain document the roots of modern scientific enquiry, based on observation, experimentation and the testing of hypotheses.


Drawings of a cucumber and a cannabis plant from an 11th- or 12th-century German herbal (Harley MS. 4986, f. 39r).

The Harley collection is particularly rich in such material. One of the foundation collections of the British Library, it contains more than 7,000 manuscripts and 14,000 charters, collected by Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (d. 1724), and his son Edward Harley (d. 1741). Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow, Henrietta, née Cavendish Holles (d. 1755), during her lifetime, and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (d. 1785). In 1753, the manuscripts were sold by the Countess and the Duchess to the British nation for £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

The conservation, digitisation and cataloguing phases of this project are already underway. The manuscripts selected range in date from the 9th century to the 17th century, and are written in a variety of western European languages (including Latin, Old and Middle English, Dutch, French, German, Irish, Italian and Spanish). They embrace many aspects of early scientific knowledge, such as astronomy, the computus, mathematics, medicine and veterinary science.

Title-page of Elevation des eaux by Sir Samuel Morland (d. 1695), 1683 (Harley MS. 5771, f. 1*r). Morland conducted several experiments into hydrostatics and hydraulics, for which he was created "Master of Mechanicks" by King Charles II of England (1660-1685). In 1682, Morland built a machine designed to transport water from the River Seine to the royal palace at Versailles. His treatise on the subject was published at Paris in 1685. Morland's other accomplishments include the production of an early calculating machine, and a "speaking trumpet" to improve communication between ships at sea.

It is anticipated that the Harley Science Project will provide full digital coverage and descriptions of some 150 manuscripts in the Harley collection. Not only do we aim to improve access to one of the British Library’s world-class collections, but we also hope to facilitate research and teaching devoted to those manuscripts.

The images and descriptions will be made available in due course via our Digitised Manuscripts site. Regular updates will be provided here as the project progresses.

Julian Harrison (Curator of Early Modern Manuscripts)

Conserving the Harley manuscripts

Harley Logo3

Earlier this year we announced the Harley Science Project, which will make available images and descriptions of 150 medieval and early modern manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection. The digitisation of the Harley science manuscripts has been generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger.

The digitisation phase of this project is approaching completion, the cataloguing is underway, and we hope to publish the first group of scientific manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts in the near-future. But a huge amount of preparation and highly-skilled work underpins projects such as these. This report by our conservator describes part of that process.

Iron-gall ink corrosion has caused paper losses. Old repairs are visible and new areas of damage required support before imaging. Thomas Osborne's Treatise on Arithmetic, England, 17th century. London, British Library, MS Harley 4924, f. 56r.

Conservators play a vital role in the digitisation process. Each manuscript is assessed before imaging to ensure that this can be done without damage. The binding is checked to be certain the book opens widely enough, especially if text is close into the gutter. The condition of the paper or parchment is noted, and the ink, gold and pigments are inspected for signs of damage or deterioration. The photographer receives a copy of the assessment with the conservator’s comments and recommendations, and after imaging the manuscript is checked again to be sure it is unharmed.

The majority of our manuscripts have been fit for imaging immediately, but occasionally they have required remedial treatment: a loose endband might need securing, a tear repairing, or pigment consolidating, while historic bindings are boxed for added protection. Damage that is unlikely to get worse, such as a detached board, can safely be left until after digitisation.

A physician's folded almanack was opened and flattened in the conservation studio before imaging. England, c. 1406. London, British Library, MS Harley 5311, f. 2v.

Our photographers are extremely experienced and careful, but they can call on the conservator for advice on handling oversized or unusual items. The conservator also monitors temperature and humidity in the photographic studio, to maintain optimum conditions. Old and damaged parchment, in particular, responds badly to swift changes and needs to acclimatise slowly.

Thousand-year-old parchment. The dark areas are evidence of an earlier binding, now lost. Anglo-Saxon miscellany including medical remedies, 11th century. London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 13v.

No digitisation project is without its complications, but it is the conservator’s job to anticipate likely difficulties, mitigate the risks and ensure a steady flow of books to the photographic studio, assessed and ready for imaging. 

Ann Tomalak

Medieval Booze Cruise

Presentation of royal identity in medieval books is rarely as straightforward as it may appear. One of the aims of our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is to explore the ways royal identity was both articulated and shaped by the medieval manuscripts that propagated royal genealogies, customs and tastes.

G70017-90Henry I and his descendants, Cotton Claudius D. ii, f. 45v.

The Book of the Laws of Ancient Kings (Liber legum antiquorum regum; Cotton Claudius D. ii), a handsomely illuminated volume featured in the exhibition, was not made for presentation to a monarch. A compilation of royal statutes and London ordinances, this manuscript, shown above, was produced in London, c. 1321, for the use of the Guildhall of London, where it remained until the sixteenth century.

 G70017-90aDetail of the miniature of Henry I, Cotton Claudius D. ii, f. 45v.

As is fitting for a book destined for Guildhall, many texts within this manuscript focus on London and its civic liberties. It also, however, contains potent representations of royal authority in connection with laws promulgated under a succession of Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings of England. Portraits of these kings, like the one of Henry I shown above, precede the charters and laws set forth during their respective reigns.

These portraits are placed in dynastic and lineal context through the genealogical diagrams that accompany them. Thus, this portrait of Henry I is followed by roundels naming his sons, daughter and the grandchild, Henry, who would eventually reign as Henry II. The laws underpinning civic life and order are represented here as inextricable from the succession of rulers by whose authority the laws were proclaimed and upheld.

G70017-90bDetail of the wreck of the White Ship, Cotton Claudius D. ii, f. 45v.

This royal authority over law is promoted in the portrait of Henry I, but the genealogical diagram beneath this miniature contains an image, shown above, alluding to a traumatic rupture in his royal line and to an attendant rupture in the land. In 1120, Henry I (r. 1100-1135) had finally solidified royal control of the duchy of Normandy after years of fighting with the French. In the previous year, the marriage of his sole legitimate male heir, William Ætheling, to Matilda of Anjou had brought the desirable county of Maine into English hands as well. The seventeen year old prince was thus securely positioned to rule England, Normandy and Maine after his father’s death.

King Henry’s careful grooming of his son for rule all came to naught on 25 November 1120, when father and son set sail from Normandy for England. Henry had initially been offered a new ship, called the White Ship, in which to make the trip, but he chose to sail in another ship, leaving the White Ship for the Ætheling and his youthful aristocratic entourage (including some of his many illegitimate half-siblings). The White Ship set off from Barfleur in the evening. By the time of its departure the young passengers and crew had been celebrating and many were said to have been quite inebriated as the ship set sail. According to one contemporary chronicler, the intoxicated sailors imprudently sought to overtake the king's ship, knowing that theirs was the newer and swifter of the two. It was not long before the ship’s pilot carelessly allowed the ship to be rowed into an underwater rock just outside the harbour at Barfleur. The image below, from another early fourteenth-century manuscript featured in the exhibition, shows a more violent depiction of the destruction that followed.

 E124213King Henry I and the White Ship in a series of images of English kings preceding Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle, Royal 20 A. ii, f. 6v.

The only survivor of the shipwreck, it is said, was a butcher of Rouen. William Ætheling was drowned, as was Richard, King Henry’s natural son, and Matilda of Perche, Henry’s natural daughter. The tragic deaths of Henry’s sons are recorded in the genealogical roundels above the White Ship: ‘Willelmum qui periit in mari’ and ‘Ricardum qui periit in mari’. The roundel directly beneath the White Ship contains the name of Henry’s surviving legitimate child, Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (‘Matildam imperatricem’).

When Henry failed to beget a new male heir after the White Ship tragedy, he named Matilda as his heir and had his court swear to support her as monarch after his death. One of the first to swear was Stephen of Blois, who moved swiftly to secure his own election to kingship after Henry’s death, thereby instigating a period of protracted civil war and lawlessness in England. This war would eventually end with the naming of Henry II, Matilda’s son and England’s first Plantagenet monarch, as Stephen’s heir, but the catastrophic death of William Ætheling and his young comrades undoubtedly had a profound and lasting effect on English history. The depiction of the event in a fourteenth-century book of legal statutes attests to medieval recognition of the import and consequences of the tragic wreck of the White Ship.

- Royal project team

14 November 2011

The Royal Opening

We are thrilled to announce that the British Library’s exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, is now open to the public!

On the night of 10 November, Her Majesty the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, received a special curator-led tour of the gallery before officially opening the exhibition.

BLCK-QUEEN8The Queen unveiling the exhibition as Prince Philip and Baroness Tessa Blackstone, British Library Chairman, look on.

 BLCK-QUEEN40The Queen, having just opened the exhibition.

During her tour of the exhibition, the Queen was shown a prayerbook known as 'The Hours of Elizabeth the Queen' (so named because Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, inscribed her name in the book as 'Elisabeth the quene'), and she lingered over the personal Psalter of Henry VIII.

BLCK-QUEEN6The Queen also saw the itinerary from London to the Holy Land made by Matthew Paris. Here Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, shows the Queen part of this itinerary.

BLCK-QUEEN7Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics and lead curator of the exhibition, shows the Queen the Royal app.

BLCK-QUEEN58The Queen departs the British Library after having opened the exhibition.

The opening was a great success and we are delighted with press coverage of the exhibition so far. The Spectator credits the British Library with 'shining light on a dimly lit world' and praises the exhibition as a 'captivating visual show.' The Arts Desk remarks that 'the exhibition is breathtaking in scope and scale, with manuscripts seeming to stretch away into infinity.' A review on Spoonfed sums the exhibition up as 'rich, beautiful, engaging and intellectually complex...a rare treat indeed.' In his review of the exhibition in Times Higher Education, Dr Paul Binski remarks, 'That books are often magnificent objects is being demonstrated brilliantly at the British Library.'

For those interested in learning more, the Guardian and the International Business Times provide vivid overviews of the exhibition and the range of manuscripts within it, and BBC News presents a slideshow coupling images from the exhibition with commentary by lead curator, Dr Scot McKendrick. In an article titled 'Exhibition in focus: Royal Manuscripts, British Library', Dr McKendrick shares his insights into the exhibition in the Daily Telegraph. The video below provides a 'behind the scenes' look at the planning, design and building of the exhibition.

Tickets for the exhibition can now be purchased online and at our Box Office.

- Royal project team

08 November 2011

Three days and counting


Where else can you see such outstanding works of art?

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB

11 November 2011 - 13 March 2012

Miniature of a view of London with the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, taken from the poems of Charles, duke of Orléans, London, before 1483: London, British Library, Royal 16 F. ii, f. 73r

04 November 2011

Perugino at the Alte Pinakothek

Perugino (d. 1523) was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance. His chief claim to fame is having been the master of Raphael; but Perugino (born Pietro de Christoforo Vannucci in Umbria around 1450) is renowned in his own right for having been one of the earliest Italian practitioners of oil painting, and for having worked on the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

The martyrdom of St Sebastian: London, British Library, MS. Yates Thompson 29, f. 132v

A major exhibition devoted to Perugino's work has recently opened at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, featuring loans from the British Library, the Uffizi (Florence), the Louvre (Paris) and the Hermitage (St Petersburg), among other institutions. The curators have endeavoured to remove Perugino from Raphael's shadow; and they have done so with stunning effect. There are some sensational pieces on display in Munich –- including the Alte Pinakothek's own Vision of St Bernard, acquired by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1829 -- and you are strongly recommended to make a special visit.

The British Library's miniature of the martyrdom of St Sebastian (Yates Thompson MS 29, f. 132) is currently on display at the Alte Pinakothek. Perugino painted this scene in Bologna around the year 1500, signing it at the bottom of the page "PETRVS PRVSINVS PINXIT". The miniature was probably made for Bonaparte Ghislieri, a Bolognese senator (d. 1541), and eventually found its way into the collection of Henry Yates Thompson (d. 1928). Yates Thompson actually sold this manuscript in 1899, before reacquiring it; it was bequeathed to the British Museum by his widow in 1941.

Perugino, The Vision of St Bernard, c. 1490: Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Perugino -- Raphael's Master is open at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich until 15 January 2011.