Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from December 2011

31 December 2011

Melvyn Bragg's The Written World

Starting on Monday, 2 January, BBC Radio 4 will broadcast In Our Time: The Written World, presented by Melvyn Bragg and featuring many of the British Library's greatest treasures.

This five-part series airs daily at 9.00-9.45, repeated each evening at 21.30-22.15. All the episodes will be available after broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.

The St Cuthbert Gospel, Northumbria, late 7th century 

Episode one investigates the technology of writing, and future instalments are devoted to the origins of the book (3 January), the spread of religion (4 January), the rise of literature (5 January), and the scientific revolution (6 January). Among the British Library's collection items explored by Melvyn Bragg are the St Cuthbert Gospel, Codex Sinaiticusthe Beowulf-manuscript and the Gutenberg Bible. Other artefacts to be featured in the series are Chinese oracle bones, and the papers of Sir Isaac Newton (d. 1727), held by our colleagues at Cambridge University Library.

The Beowulf-manuscript, England, early 11th century

You can read more here about the British Library's involvement in The Written World.

30 December 2011

The First View of London

K90049-74 Royal 16 F ii f. 73

A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, Bruges, c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500: Royal MS 16 F. ii, f. 73


This extraordinary image is justly famous as the earliest-known topographically accurate depiction of London. It is found in Royal 16 F. ii, a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans (d. 1465), and accompanies the verses Des Nouvelles d’Albyon (News from England). Charles had been captured at the battle of Agincourt (1415), and spent the next twenty-five years in England, part of the time imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he composed these poems.

Royal 16 F. ii is one of the splendid manuscripts on view in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. The Tower is visible prominently in the foreground of this image, and within it Charles is shown pen in hand. Perhaps he is writing the poem copied on this page, addressed to his cousin Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (r. 1419-1467), who ultimately paid Charles's ransom.

Charles’s poems were disseminated widely, this lavish copy including a selection of his verses about politics or romance. The presence in the book of the arms of England, supported by emblems such as the Yorkist white rose, suggests that this was one of the large-scale manuscripts intended for King Edward IV (1461-1483). Interestingly, this is the only one of Edward IV’s manuscripts that is not a work of history.

The book was apparently unfinished at Edward’s death, but the rest of the decoration was completed for King Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), whose arms were added to the border around the first large image.

27 December 2011

Video review of Royal Manuscripts

The British Library's current major exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, has received some excellent reviews. Here is one, posted recently on, focusing both on the exhibition and the catalogue which accompanies it.


In the words of the reviewer, the catalogue "makes for a good compliment to those who have had the chance to view the exhibition, adding indepth details about this collection as well as dozens of wonderful images from the Middle Ages".

Also showcasing the exhibition is a television documentary, Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, presented by Dr Jana Ramirez. Part one airs on BBC4 on 9 January: more details to follow in the New Year.

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is on at the British Library until 13 March 2012 (closed on 1 January).

Did you know that you could win a luxury trip for two to Paris, if you take part in our competition?



22 December 2011

An early Christmas present

World chronicle from the Creation to AD 1574, 17th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 5742, f. 1r (detail)

Okay, it's not exactly the latest gadget, or that diamond ring you've been admiring for the last month; but the British Library can give you (drum roll, please) another 79 fully digitised Greek manuscripts, available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Regular readers will know about our Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The most recent upload contains some 29,000 new images, and concludes phase two of this project. The manuscripts in question range in date from the 11th century to the 18th century, and include copies of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Aesop's Fables, and a world chronicle from the Creation to AD 1574.

New Testament, 16th century: London, British Library, MS Harley 5552, f. 227v

Digitised Manuscripts now contains 589 complete items from the British Library's collections, among them such gems as the Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352) and a magnificent copy of the Four Gospels (Add MS 11300). Here is a list of the most recent additions to the site:

Harley 5536

Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora, 16th century

Harley 5541

Horologion, Psalms, Prayers; Basil of Caesarea, De legendis libris gentilibus, 15th/16th century

Harley 5543

150 Aesopic fables, 15th century

Harley 5545

Formulary for letters to patriarchs and archbishops, 16th-17th century

Harley 5546

Sabaitic typicon, 15th century

Harley 5548

Euchologion, 16th century

Harley 5551

John VI Cantacuzenus, Apologia for Christianity against Islam, 1720

Harley 5552

New Testament, 16th century

Harley 5553

Psalter, 14th century

Harley 5555

Collection of Prayers; Nomocanonical Treatises and Questions with Answers, 14th-16th century

Harley 5563

Psalter, 14th century

Harley 5566

Letters of Synesius, Phalaris, Alciphron, Brutus and others, 14th century

Harley 5569

Works of Manuel Chrysoloras, Philip of Macedon, Hesiod and Pythagoras, 15th century

Harley 5578

Plutarch and Theorian, 16th century

Harley 5580

Dionysius Periegetes, Orbis descriptio, 16th century

Harley 5582

Psalms and Odes, 14th century

Harley 5587

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 15th century

Harley 5595

Georgios Sphrantzes, Chronicon maius, 1714

Harley 5601

Homer, 15th century

Harley 5604

Heron, Geoponica, 15th-16th century

Harley 5606

Christophoros Kontoleon, Περὶ ἀρχῆς, 16th century

Harley 5615

Hilarion Cigalas, Archbishop of Cyprus, Compendium of the New and Old Testament, 17th century

Harley 5616

Philotheos Kokkinos, Patriarch of Constantinople, Πάρεργα, 1721

Harley 5617

Manuel Moschopoulos, Τεχνολογία, or Scholia on Iliad I and II, c1453-70

Harley 5621

Scholia on the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, 15th-16th century

Harley 5622

St Basil of Caesarea, Commentary on Isaiah, 11th-12th century

Harley 5624

Letters, Theologica, Astrologica, 14th-15th century

Harley 5625

Galen, De pulsibus, 16th century

Harley 5627

Homilies on the Gospels, 15th century

Harley 5628

Pietro Bembo, Πρὸς ἐνέτας περὶ τοῦ βοηθεῖν τοῖς τῶν ἑλλήνων λόγοις, 16th century

Harley 5629

Grammatica, 15th century

Harley 5632

Works of Manuel Malaxos and Ps.-Methodius, 1574

Harley 5634

Lycophron, Alexandra, 15th century

Harley 5635

Letters and philosophical treatises, c 1453-1457

Harley 5639

Patristic miscellany, 14th century

Harley 5641

Theodore Gazes, Γραμματικὴ εἰσαγωγή, 15th century

Harley 5649

St John of Damascus, 14th century

Harley 5651

Galen, De locis affectis, with scholia, c 1490-1510

Harley 5652

Galen, De usu partium, 1508

Harley 5659

Musaeus, Hero and Leander, 15th century

Harley 5660

St Basil, Isocrates and Plutarch, 15th century

Harley 5661

Photius, De spiritus sancti processione, 1722

Harley 5664

Aristophanes, c 1490-1519

Harley 5665

Sophronius and the Second Council of Nicaea, 13th century

Harley 5667

Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo, 16th century

Harley 5669

Liturgies, 15th century

Harley 5670

Demosthenes, Speeches, 15th century

Harley 5671

Proclus Diadochus, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, 16th century

Harley 5673

Homer, Odyssey, 15th century

Harley 5674

Homer, Odyssey, 13th century

Harley 5676

Thomas Stanley, Notes on Callimachus, 17th century

Harley 5681

Hermogenes, 15th century

Harley 5687

St Augustine, De trinitate, 1609

Harley 5688

Works of Marcus Eremita and others, 11th-12th century

Harley 5693

Homer's Iliad, and grammatical treatises, 14th century

Harley 5696

Proclus of Athens, Commentary on the First Alcibiades of Plato, 16th century

Harley 5723

Psalms and Odes, 16th century

Harley 5726

Geoponica in 20 books, 16th century

Harley 5728

Rhetoric, Demosthenes, 16th century

Harley 5729

Elias Meniates, Petra Offensionis, 1689-1717

Harley 5730

Grammatical miscellany, 16th century

Harley 5731

Four Gospels and Apostolos, 16th century

Harley 5732

Apollodorus of Athens, Bibliotheca, 16th century

Harley 5733

Pindar, Olympia and Pythia, 1492

Harley 5736

Four Gospels, 1506

Harley 5737

Psalter, 1478

Harley 5738

Psalter, 16th century

Harley 5739

Synesius, 16th century

Harley 5740

Syropoulos, Council of Florence, c 1700

Harley 5741

Constantine Lascaris, Grammar, Book 1, 15th century

Harley 5742

World chronicle from the Creation to 1574, 17th century

Harley 5743

Sophocles and Euripides, 15th century

Harley 5760

Maximus of Tyre, Φιλοσοφούμενα, 15th century

Harley 5778

New Testament, 12th century

Harley 5788

Photius, 1720

Harley 5789

Nectarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Περὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ πάπα ἀντιρρήσεις, c 1700

Harley 5791

Nicetas, Metropolites of Heraclea, 1682

Harley 7522 A

Old Testament, c 1640

Harley 7522 B

Notes and collations of Patrick Young, c 1646

20 December 2011

Help Us Date and Localise This Manuscript


London, British Library, MS Harley 2332, f. 20v

Medieval manuscripts frequently contain no indication of when they were written. In order to assign them an approximate dating, we invariably have to make judgments based on their script and decoration, both of which change over the centuries.

Harley 2332, a physician's almanac in the British Library's collections, is an exception to this rule. On one of its pages is found a full-page illustration, featuring twelve pictograms, each of them annotated with the number of years to have passed until the time when the almanac was made. Based on this information, we can conclude that Harley 2332 was made in or around the year AD 1412.

Certain of these pictograms defy interpretation, however, so we'd like to solicit your help to identify and date them. Please feel free to send us your ideas in the comment box at the foot of this post. Here is a list of the twelve images (reproduced above), reading from top to bottom and starting with the left-hand column. As you will see, not all of our identifications match precisely.

(a) the world represented by a medieval T-O map/6804 = 6804 years since the Creation (5392 BC)

(b) a monster's mouth/4604 = 4604 years since Sodom and Gomorrah? (3192 BC)

(c) an archbishop/804 = 804 years since St Augustine of Canterbury (AD 608: Augustine arrived in England in 597 and died in 604)

(d) a shroud/63 = 63 years since the Black Death (AD 1349)

(e) a saint/932 = 932 years since St Patrick? (AD 480: Patrick lived in the 5th century, but his exact dates are open to question)

(f) a ship/4308 = 4308 years since Noah's Ark (2896 BC)

(g) an archibishop's mitre stabbed by 3 swords/233 = 233 years since the murder of Thomas Becket (AD 1179: Becket was actually murdered in 1170)

(h) a king/13 = 13 years since the death of King Richard II (AD 1399)

(i) a laywoman/705 = 705 years since ? (AD 707: someone associated with the place where this manuscript was made?)

(j) the Nativity/1412 = 1412 since the Nativity (AD 0)

(k) a man with a sword through his neck/84 = 84 years since the murder of King Edward II (AD 1328: Edward was murdered in 1327)

(l) 2 swords crossed/10 = 10 years since a battle (AD 1402: the battle of Shrewsbury was fought in 1403)

We know that this almanac was made in England. Perhaps someone can identify all the historical figures whose images are found on f. 20v.

Harley 2332 has recently been digitised in its entirety as part of our Harley Science Project. These images, together with an enhanced description, will be made available on Digitised Manuscripts in 2012.

Harley Logo3


19 December 2011

Last minute Christmas ideas


Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, Royal Illuminated Manuscripts from King Athelstan to Henry VIII: £10

With Christmas under a week away, you might be interested in these Royal-related gifts available exclusively from the British Library shop. There are presents for everyone aged from 5 to 105, including jewellery and scarves, books and prints, teapots, and cuddly toys.L_ISBN_5051876135575[1]

Teapot -- Royal Beasts: £64.95

Impress your loved ones with the range of "Royal Beasts" earthenware designed specially by Emma Bridgewater, inspired by our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Children of all ages will adore this cuddly lion, the King of Beasts.


Toy lion: £8.99

The British Library shop stocks Royal-related badges, bags, bookmarks, brooches, earrings, mugs, necklaces, notebooks, scarves, ties ... the list could go on and on. Gifts range from £3 (badges and magnets) to £395 (the fascsimile of King Henry VIII's sumptuous choirbook, Royal 11 E XI).

Gifts are available online or in person from the British Library near St Pancras International Station in London (open until 18.00 on Thursday, 22 December, reopening on Wednesday, 28 December).

Mug -- God creates heaven and earth: £10

16 December 2011

The Royal Conference: A Retrospective

On 12-13 December the British Library hosted the Royal conference in conjunction with our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Seventeen speakers gathered from the UK, continental Europe and America to shed new light on the Royal collection, and particularly on the manuscripts on display.

We are delighted with the conference’s success, and the feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive. Over 150 people were in attendance for two days of fascinating insights into the Royal manuscripts. Subjects ranged from some of the best known manuscripts in the exhibition—including the Shrewsbury Book (Royal 15 E. vi) and the itinerary of Matthew Paris (Royal 14 C. vii)—to some of the Royal collection’s less familiar treasures, like a humanist book containing hieroglyphic emblems (Royal 12 C. iii) and an (unusually) unillustrated but heavily annotated bestiary (Royal 2 C. xii). The evening talks given by Michael Wood and John Goodall were erudite and entertaining highlights for those attending the conference, as was the exhibition itself.

K102060shrewsburyMiniature of Charlemagne and Naymes meeting on horseback, Shrewsbury Book, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 43.

On Monday morning, Professor Anthony Edwards and Professor Matthew Fisher focused on the output and authorial interventions of two respective scribes of Royal manuscripts: the sixteenth-century poet William Forrest, whose poems survive in three Royal manuscripts (Royal 17 A. xxi, Royal 17 D. iii and Royal 18 C. xiii), and the so-called Harley Scribe, who was involved in copying some of the many texts within an intriguing multilingual English book (Royal 12 C. xii). A work of one of medieval England's most famous scribes and authors, Matthew Paris, was the subject of the next paper, by Professor Dorothy Kim. In the second session, Kim and Erin K. Donovan both considered how two vastly different Royal manuscripts, the latter (Royal 15 E. i) destined for Edward IV, visualise the East.

E115495livrederaclesMiniature of emperor Heraclius carrying the True Cross, at a gate of Jerusalem, Livre d'Eracles, Royal 15 E. i, f. 16.

In the afternoon, Dr Alixe Bovey and Dr Olivier de Laborderie examined representations of royalty in the Smithfield Decretals (Royal 10 E. iv) and the two roll chronicles of English kings featured in the exhibition (Royal 14 B. v and Royal 14 B. vi), respectively. The afternoon concluded with a session dedicated to the Shrewsbury book. The speakers—Dr Marigold Norbye, Sara Torres and Jade Bailey—then took part in a lively panel discussion in which they discussed the different angles from which that fascinating manuscript might be explored.

K90032-37SmithfieldBas-de-page scene of a messenger approaching a king and queen, Smithfield Decretals, Royal 10 E. iv, f. 314.

Tuesday morning's first session was dedicated to the reading of words and images in manuscripts. Dr Maud Pérez-Simon and Professor Anne D. Hedeman each examined a Royal manuscript whose oft-illuminated contents—the Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Royal 20 B. xx) and the Grandes chroniques (Royal 16 G. vi), respectively—are paired with unique and fascinating miniatures. They were followed by Dr Thomas Kren and Lieve de Kesel, whose papers paired manuscripts (including Royal 16 F. ii and Royal 19 C. viii) in a fruitful dialogue uncovering new insights into the style of their production.

K040702alexanderDetail of a miniature of the birth of a monstrous child, La vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 86v.

In the afternoon, Dr Ilya Dines and Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler considered how word and image, respectively, shed new light on the readers of two Royal books, the annotated bestiary and the splendid Welles Apocalypse (Royal 15 D. ii). In the final session, Dr Joanna Frońska and Dr Sonja Drimmer gave papers dedicated to two books—a book of astrological treatises and political prophecies (Arundel 66) and the book illustrating and defining hieroglypics—whose somewhat unusual or esoteric contents were intended for a royal audience.

K90117-07arundel66Initial 'R'(adix) formed from a dragon and a crowned tree, Arundel 66, f. 129.

K90049-99hieroglyphicaFull-page miniature of a monument-like structure with a purple background, with a series of hieroglyphic emblems, Hieroglyphica, Royal 12 C. iii, f. 19v.

Funding for the exhibition and conference was provided by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Student bursaries were generously supported by AMARC.

- Royal project team