Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from January 2012

31 January 2012

100,000 Page Views and Counting!

As we celebrate our 100,000th page view – not bad for a blog devoted to old books – we wanted to share some of our favourite posts and the feedback they've generated.


White gloves or not white gloves

In August 2011 we told you about the British Library's policy on handling manuscripts. One of our biggest fans is David Thomson, the Bishop of Huntingdon, and in his Bishop's Blog he wrote "The British Library has come clean on the White Glove Ritual. You’ve seen it: the suitably awed TV presenter is allowed to hold the precious mediaeval manuscript, and solemnly goes through the ritual of donning the White Gloves, before gingerly opening the priceless volume. Well, white gloves are fine for evening dress, waiting-on and a verger in a full fig, but it turns out that the manuscript business is just for show."


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

In September 2011 we posted recordings of an excerpt of the Old English epic Beowulf, translated into various modern languages. Madhava Turumella came specially into the British Library to record the Telugu version of Beowulf. He describes himself as a friend of the British Library, always keen to volunteer, and he added a link to the recording on his own webpage.


The Royal Conference: A Retrospective

In December 2011 the British Library held a successful conference associated with the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Greta Franzini is studying for a PhD in Digital Humanities at University College London, and in her blog she provides a useful resumé of each speaker's presentation, with links to the websites of individual participants.


Melvyn Bragg's The Written World

In January 2012 BBC Radio 4 broadcast five programmes devoted to the written word, and how it has shaped our intellectual history. Here is a blog entry written by Tom Morris, producer of the series, describing the first time he laid eyes on the St Cuthbert Gospel: "Melvyn Bragg and I sit waiting at a conference table. We are there to interview the library's Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, Claire Breay ... She slides off the lid to reveal a small linen-wrapped package. There is an undeniable tension in the room as she removes this protective covering to reveal a small leather-bound volume."

The Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts curators at the British Library are having great fun writing this blog. Thanks for reading it – we hope you continue to do so!

You can now follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

28 January 2012

Cat and Mouse, and Hairy Elephants


The British Library is a treasure trove of stunning manuscripts, not all of which are in our Royal exhibition. One of these books is an Italian herbal, made around the year 1440 (Sloane MS 4016), which contains this delightful image of a cat chasing a mouse. The manuscript is a luxurious production, and you may like to know that a full-colour facsimile of it is available.

Apart from numerous detailed botanical drawings, this herbal supplies many images of animals and of aspects of medieval life, a small selection of which can be seen below: (1) a man and a woman sitting on a bench (labelled 'De homine sive de muliere experimenta', illustrating the effects of an aphrodisiac); (2) an impressively hairy elephant; and (3) a man urinating into a pot (this is a medical manuscript, after all).




It's reassuring to know that little has changed in the past 500 years ...

You can now follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval

26 January 2012

Genealogy of a Royal Bastard

K90048-11 William detailDetail of a roundel of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340-1342, Royal 14 B. vi, membrane 5

It may seem somewhat obvious to state that the majority of medieval manuscripts were created in codex (or book) form, but it is important to remember that this was not always the case.  Rolls were the preferred, and most prestigious, form throughout the classical period, only being supplanted by the codex in the Christian era.  Nonetheless, rolls (or more familiarly, scrolls) remained in use in medieval Europe, particularly for special projects.  Visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination can see prayer rolls such as those created for Margaret of Anjou (MS 124, on loan from Jesus College, Oxford) and that owned and used by Henry VIII when he was Prince of Wales (British Library Additional 88929).  Also displayed are two of the treasures of the Royal collection, a pair of genealogical chronicles of the English kings (Royal 14 B. v and Royal 14 B. vi, both now fully digitised and available online).

The roll format was ideal for the presentation of history as genealogy or a royal family tree, with detailed long diagrams of royal descent featuring kings and members of their families in roundels.  The images are accompanied by short captions and commentary on the royal portraits, mostly variants on text from an anonymous Anglo-Norman chronicle. The ultimate source of this particularly diagrammatic history of the English monarchy may be Matthew Paris, the monk and historian of St Albans (d. 1259) whose works feature elsewhere in the exhibition; for a much more detailed description of the history please see Joanna Frońska's essay on the rolls in the exhibition catalogue, or her virtual exhibition Writing and Picturing History: Historical Manuscripts from the Royal Collection.

These rolls were particularly popular in England in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, with around forty surviving from the time of Edward I's accession in 1272 to the end of Henry V's reign in 1422.  Probably created for the aristocracy or other wealthy patrons, these genealogical chronicles sought to emphasize the legitimacy of the Plantagenets through their connections to both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal dynasties. 

K90048-07 membrane 1 detailDetail of a diagram of the Heptarchy, from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340-1342, Royal 14 B. vi, membrane 1

Royal 14 B. vi is nearly five metres long, formed of seven membranes (sheets of parchment) glued end-to-end.  It begins, as many like rolls do, with a large circular diagram of the Heptarchy, which represents the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex; see above).  The first king depicted is 'Ecgberht' (Egbert, d. 839), the King of Wessex who was said to have united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  A series of Anglo-Saxon kings are followed by Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy (d. c. 932) and descending to William the Conqueror, or 'William the Bastard' as he was then known and thus labelled in the roll. 


William the Bastard had an unenviably difficult status, as both illegitimate and the usurper of the English throne, but efforts were made to reconcile him with 'English royalty' through the House of Plantagenet.  The blue genealogical line which can be seen along the left of this section (see below) stretches nearly a metre long, linking St Margaret, the grand-daughter of the Anglo-Saxon Edmund Ironside (half-brother of Edward the Confessor) to Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I and grandmother of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king. (This link can be dramatically seen in the first episode of the BBC 4 programme Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, available on BBC iPlayer, during which Janina Ramirez and Dr Frońska unroll the chronicle to examine this complex genealogy.)

K90048-11 membrane 5
Detail of roundels of the dukes of Normandy, ancestors of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), and descendants of Wililam the Conqueror, from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340-1342, Royal 14 B. vi, membrane 5

- Sarah J Biggs

24 January 2012

Illuminations: Watch Clips Here

All three episodes of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings are currently available on the BBC iPlayer. But to whet your appetite, and for those of you outside the United Kingdom, here are some clips from the series, featuring some of the British Library's finest manuscripts: the Alphonso Psalter (Additional MS 24686); the Mirror for Princes or Secretum Secretorum (Additional MS 47680); and Henry VII's indenture for Westminster Abbey (Harley MS 1498).

For the best viewing experience, click on Play and then select the full-screen function.

Visitors to London can see these beautiful books in our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (until 11 March 2012).





23 January 2012

Libraries Gave Us Power

Don't forget that the third and final episode of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings is broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00-22.00). In this instalment Janina Ramirez examines the books of the Tudors, including court music composed for King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), and love notes between Henry and Anne Boleyn, his second fateful queen, written in the margins of a prayerbook.

A copy of a transaction between King Henry VII of England (r. 1485-1509) and the monks of Westminster Abbey, issued in 1504: London, British Library, MS Harley 1498, f. 1r. See our earlier blog entry on this manuscript, which can also be viewed in the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Illuminations features many of the beautiful manuscripts on display in the British Library's current major exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Try to catch the exhibition before it closes on 11 March 2012. Alternatively, all the items on display can be seen in our Facebook albums. You do not require a Facebook account to view them.

The first two episodes of Illuminations -- Ruling by the Book and What a King Should Know -- are still available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.

20 January 2012

Henry VIII as King David

C13452-11 Royal 2 A xvi f. 3

Miniature of Henry VIII in his bedchamber, from the Henry VIII Psalter, London, c. 1540, Royal 2 A. xvi, f. 3

The illustrations that Henry VIII commissioned in a Psalter (Royal 2 A. xvi) for his own use c. 1540 demonstrate that he saw himself as a king in the tradition of the biblical King David.  In the Psalter's opening portrait (above), Henry is shown seated in a chair in his bedchamber holding an open book and looking out at the viewer, who was, of course, originally Henry himself.  Henry was forty-nine when the manuscript was created, and in this image he looks his age.  It is not too fanciful to see the open book that the King holds as a representation of this very Psalter, the red binding of which survives, albeit in a rather worn state.  This portrait occurs at the beginning of Psalm 1, the location in a Psalter where an image of King David was traditional.

The King commissioned the Psalter from Jean Mallard, who signed his name in the dedicatory preface as the King's poet, and who wrote out the Psalms in a beautifully clear script of the type known as humanistic.  Mallard may have painted the portrait and the three others in the book that also feature Henry as David, one with Goliath (Psalm 26, f. 30), another with David's harp (Psalm 52, f. 63v; see below), and another in prayer (Psalm 68, f. 79). 

Detail of a miniature of Henry VIII as King David, holding a harp, with his court jester, William Somer (or Sommers), from the Henry VIII Psalter, London, c. 1540, Royal 2 A. xvi, f. 63v

By this period it would have been unusual to choose to create a manuscript Psalter in Latin, rather than the more popular Book of Hours.  Perhaps the opportunity for a direct alignment between Henry VIII and King David could account, in part, for the commissioning of such a personalised copy of the text. 

That Henry VIII used this manuscript is clear from extensive Latin annotations in his own hand, including the marginal note reproduced on f. 3 (top).  This note reads 'N[ota] quis sit beat[us]' ('Note who is blessed').  This is a reference to the text of Psalm 1 which reads, in part, 'Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly... his will is in the law of the Lord, on on his law he shall meditate day and night.'  Henry wrote this during the height of the Protestant Reformation, and clearly included himself among the ranks of the most blessed.

The Psalter of Henry VIII is currently on display in the British Library's exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and is digitised in full in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  It is also available for download as part of the Library's eBook Treasures; with a special price of £7.99 (normally £9.99) through 20 January; so if you are interested, it may be best to hurry!

- Royal project team

18 January 2012

Athelstan Psalter online

The British Library has the world's largest holdings of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Images of one of these early books, the Athelstan Psalter, have now been added to Digitised Manuscripts, to join those already available of the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch. (See our post Anglo-Saxon treasures online.)

C13231-04 Cotton Galba A xviii f  21

London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

The so-called Athelstan Psalter has an intriguing history. Written in North-East Francia in the 9th century, it had been taken to England by the 10th century, where it reputedly passed through the hands of Athelstan, king of Wessex and England (r. 924-939). At a much later stage, this Psalter was owned by Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), who added a frontispiece to the manuscript, formed of cuttings of the Breviary of Margaret of York, duchess of Burgundy, and what may have been a Book of Hours.

In October 1731, the Psalter suffered damage in a fire at Ashburnham House in Westminster, in which a handful of other manuscripts were completely destroyed. As you can see, the outer edges of its pages have been charred, and the parchment has warped in the heat of the fire.

C13365-04 Cotton Galba A xviii f  2v

London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 2v

The Athelstan Psalter (British Library MS Cotton Galba A XVIII) is on display in our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination until 13 March 2012. Of course, it's only possible to have two pages visible to the public at any one time. Having the digital images available on Digitised Manuscripts means that, for the first time in its 1,200-year history, the Psalter's pages can now be viewed in their entirety without having to handle the fragile manuscript.

You can read more about the Athelstan Psalter in the catalogue which accompanies Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. In his catalogue-entry, Professor Richard Gameson (University of Durham) analyses the evidence for the Psalter's association with King Athelstan, concluding that there are some signs to connect this manuscript with Winchester and with Athelstan's court.

16 January 2012

What a King Should Know

The second episode of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, airs tonight on BBC Four. Entitled "What a King Should Know", this episode examines the education of medieval princes such as King Edward III (r. 1327-1377), and the emergence of the encyclopedia.

F. 150v
The Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 150v

A British Library book featuring in tonight's Illuminations is the Bedford Hours, one of the most outstanding illuminated manuscripts ever produced. Made in Paris around 1410, on Christmas Eve 1430 this Book of Hours was presented by Anne of Burgundy, wife of John, Duke of Bedford, to her nine-year-old nephew, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471).

Don't forget that a digital version of the Bedford Hours can be purchased in the British Library's eBook Treasures series, and is on special offer until 20 January 2012 (£7.99, normally £9.99). The real thing can meanwhile be seen in our current exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

Episode one of Illuminations with Janina Ramirez is still available to view on the BBC iPlayer (UK users only, alas). The third and final episode, "Libraries Gave Us Power", airs first on Monday, 23 January 2012.