Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

15 posts from January 2012

15 January 2012

British Library eBook Treasures

Have you ever wondered what it's like to own a medieval manuscript, and to turn its pages one-by-one? Some of us may never have that opportunity; but new technology, such as the British Library's eBook Treasures, enables us to get a close-up view of these marvellous books.


Available for the iPad, iPhone (3GS and 4) and iPod Touch (3rd and 4th generations), the eBook Treasures include text, video and audio interpretation, and allow each item to be viewed in high definition; once downloaded, they can be read offline. What's more, certain eBook Treasures relating to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination are on special offer until 20 January 2012:

The Bedford Hours (complete version) £7.99 (normally £9.99)

Medieval Bestiary (highlights version) £3.99 (normally £4.99)

Jean Mallard, Henry VIII's Psalter (complete version) £7.99 (normally £9.99)

F. 15v
The Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 15v

Henry VIII's Psalter: London, British Library, MS Royal 2 A XVI, f. 3r

Also available in the eBook Treasures series are the Luttrell Psalter (in both complete and highlights versions), William Shakespeare's First Folio, Gerardus Mercator's Atlas, William Tyndale's The New Testament, and works by Jane Austen, William Blake, Lewis Carroll and Leonardo da Vinci. Another 75 titles are promised in the next two years.

13 January 2012

Royal Manuscripts: The Making of an Exhibition


Have you ever wondered how we put together Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination? If so, please come along to the British Library Conference Centre on Friday, 20 January (13.00-14.00), when the curators of the exhibition, Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, will discuss their experiences of planning the exhibition.

Dr McKendrick can also been seen in this video, filmed before the exhibition opened.


The Making of an Exhibition is an informal presentation, offering a behind-the-scenes view of the practicalities of mounting a major exhibition. It should be of interest to everyone who is fascinated by this process.

Please note: this event is free and is not ticketed. Seats will be allocated on a first come, first served basis.

The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB (nearest stations St Pancras, King's Cross and Euston: see this map)

10 January 2012

Illuminations with Janina Ramirez

Some of you may have watched last night's Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings on BBC Four. For those of you who missed the broadcast, fear not. The programme is available to UK users only on the BBC iPlayer, and will hopefully also be shown in other countries.


Presented by the art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, Illuminations features three episodes drawing on the splendid manuscripts in the British Library's current major exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012). Dr Scot McKendrick, one of the exhibition's curators, acted as consultant to the BBC series.

Yesterday's episode was entitled Ruling by the Book, and has been reviewed by Christopher Howse for The Daily Telegraph (Sins and secrets of the medieval kings, 10 January). Episode 2, What a King Should Know, will be broadcast first on Monday, 16 January, at 21.00 on BBC Four.

07 January 2012

Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings


Dr Janina Ramirez in the British Library. Photo courtesy of Oxford Film and Television

Dozens of medieval manuscripts from the Royal and other British Library collections will be featured in a television series to air on BBC Four, beginning next week.  Presented by art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings is a three-part series examining in detail what these manuscript treasures can reveal about the hidden lives of England's monarchs. 

The series was produced as part of The British Library's ongoing collaboration with the BBC, and in conjunction with our exhibition of manuscripts from the Royal collection.  Many of the manuscripts featured have never before appeared on film (a few of our curatorial team will be making their television debuts as well).

Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics at the British Library, served as a series consultant on the programmes. He says, 'There is no doubt that this collection held by the British Library provides us all with unique opportunities to explore in-depth the lives of our kings from the medieval period.  The beauty and ingenuity of these manuscripts, that have stood the test of time, also tells us a great deal about a relatively forgotten period of our history. We are delighted to be telling this fascinating story through the British Library's exhibition and through this mesmerising series with BBC Four.'

The first episode, called Ruling by the Book, will air on BBC Four on Monday 9 January at 21:00, and will also be available after the broadcast on BBC iPlayer.

Further information is available from the British Library's press release, and there is also a review of the programme in the Daily Mail.  This review ends with a reference to the long-running debate over whether or not gloves should be worn by curators handling illuminated manuscripts, a topic previously discussed in our blog.

06 January 2012

The Written World

The Written World, presented by Melvyn Bragg and featuring items from the British Library, aired this week on BBC Radio 4. Among the British Library's treasures discussed in the programmes are the Codex Sinaiticus (one of the two oldest manuscripts of the Bible), the St Cuthbert Gospel (the oldest intact European book), and Beowulf (the greatest epic poem in Old English).

The St Cuthbert Gospel, 7th century

All five episodes are available to listen to again on the BBC's iPlayer. The series has been very well-received: see this review in The Guardian.

04 January 2012

Simon Armitage at The British Library


Simon Armitage is one of Britain's most popular living poets, and acclaimed translator into modern English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006). Next Monday, 9 January (18.30-20.00), he will be performing at the British Library, reading extracts from his new work, The Death of King Arthur (Faber & Faber, 2011), a translation of the medieval epic Alliterative Morte Arthure. Tickets are still available, priced at £7.50 (£5 concessions), and can be purchased here.


The Alliterative Morte Arthure is a 4,346-line Middle English poem written around 1400, surviving uniquely in a manuscript at Lincoln Cathedral. It forms part of a late-medieval revival in interest in King Arthur, also evidenced by Sir Gawain (which is found in a single medieval copy, British Library MS Cotton Nero A. X) and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur. At the British Library, Simon Armitage will be joined by Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times, to discuss his new version of the Alliterative Morte Arthure.

01 January 2012

A Calendar Page for January 2012

For a further discussion of medieval calendars (and our previous calendar from the Isabella Breviary), please see the post for January of 2011.

Our next series of medieval calendar images comes from Additional 18852, the Hours of Joanna of Castile (or if you prefer, the Hours of Joanna the Mad), which is currently on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.  This small and exquisite Book of Hours was produced for Joanna of Castile, the daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.  In 1496 Joanna married Philip the Handsome (or Philip the Fair), son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, and as both her arms and those of Philip appear throughout the manuscript, it must have been created between the time of their marriage and that of Philip’s death in 1506. 

C13811-99 f. 288

Miniature of Joanna of Castile praying, accompanied by John the Evangelist, Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, f. 288

This manuscript was clearly customized quite carefully for Joanna of Castile; there are some texts that are unusual for a Book of Hours which were likely chosen directly by her.  The subject matter of many of the illuminations reflects her religious and artistic interests, and she also appears in two miniatures, including the one above, in which she is being presented to the Virgin and Child by St John the Evangelist.

The Book of Hours begins with a calendar, with the entry for each month spread across two folios.  The listings of saints days and feast days are surrounded by intricate miniatures depicting a variety of labours for each month. 

Add 18852 ff. 1v-2
Calendar pages for January, Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 1v-2

The first folio of the January opening contains a miniature of two nobles engaged in January’s standard ‘labours’ of warming oneself by a fire, and feasting on rich food.  Nearby a servant woman is at work beside a canopied bed.  At the top of the facing folio is a small painting of Aquarius as a nude man with a pitcher of water.  Below is a winter scene of people enjoying themselves on a frozen river, skating, sledging, and (our favourite) playing a ball game.