Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from March 2012

30 March 2012

What's Unique About the British Library?

Sitting on the train to work this morning, I started to ponder what makes the British Library unique. What do we have in our collections that can't be found elsewhere? Here's what I came up with (forgive the rotten poem, it is a Friday after all).

Two original Magna Cartas, issued in 1215,

Lady Jane Grey's Prayerbook, England's nine-day queen,

Five Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, bloody tales of yore,

Shakespeare's only playscript, The Book of Thomas More,

Two fourth-century Bibles, inscribed in ancient Greek,

Lots of tiny charters, written in script oblique,

Leonardo's Notebook, written upside down,*

The very first depiction of good old London town.

*[okay, back-to-front doesn't rhyme] 


And here, for good measure, is an image of King Henry VIII, just possibly singing Greensleeves to his court jester (who may be thinking to himself, "It goes from bad to verse").

Detail of a miniature of Henry VIII as David and his court jester, William Somer, at the beginning of Psalm 52 (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 A. XVI, f. 63v).

Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts

28 March 2012

Science Manuscripts Online Soon

Here's a quick taster of some of the outstanding scientific manuscripts we've recently digitised, and which will soon be available on Digitised Manuscripts. The British Library's Harley Science Project, generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger, has supported the digitisation of 150 manuscripts, spanning the period from the 9th to the 17th centuries, and embracing many branches of early scientific knowledge.


Harley MS 3719 is a collection of astronomical, medical and philosophical texts, put together between the 13th and 16th centuries. On ff. 158v-159r is this famous illustration, combining the features of a bloodletting man with those of a zodiac man. Look closely at the Middle English captions and you'll see such gems of wisdom as "The veyne under the armehole opened makith a man dye laughting".


From a significantly earlier period we have this manuscript of Cicero's Aratea (Harley MS 647), illustrated with 22 constellation figures containing extracts from the Astronomica of Hyginus (on this page, f. 4r, is Persius). The book in question was made in northern France in the 1st half of the 9th century, and later came to England (by the 15th century it belonged to the monks of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury). On f. 21v is an inscription recording that the manuscript was corrected and repaired by the scribe Geruvigus, offering us an intriguing window into the book's early history.


Another manuscript digitised in full as part of the Harley Science Project is this copy of Thomas Osborne's treatise on arithmetic (Harley MS 4924), which, as the title-page states (f. 1r), was "fullie finished before the 28 day of March Anno Domini 1602". The manuscript was probably intended for presentation to Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) -- the title-page contains the royal arms of England.

Thomas Osborne probably deserves an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where he's not currently featured. It's our hope that this digitisation project will bring similar hidden treasures to light, improving in the process our understanding of early scientific learning.

Harley Logo3

26 March 2012

London Games and 'Sicilian Games'

Excitement is building for the London 2012 Olympic Games, which will begin in just over four months (27 July – 12 August 2012, with the Paralympic Games from 29 August to 9 September).  It will be a busy summer for London (a masterful understatement!) and everyone is preparing for the deluge of visitors – including the British Library.  The crowds that will travel through St Pancras station on their way to various Olympic events may not realise, but the British Library holds a wealth of items relating to the history of sport and the Olympic games, and over the coming months we will be highlighting a number of our treasures. 

K019497 King's 24 f. 88 detail

Detail of a miniature of Entellus and Dares wrestling in the nude, with ships weighing anchor behind and the sacrifice of a bull on the shore of Actium, at the beginning of book III of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King's 24, f. 88

The first such is a manuscript that features an episode of the so-called ‘Sicilian Games’ – a ceremonial competition closely related to the Olympics and described in one of the great epics of western history, the Aeneid.   This manuscript, called the King’s Virgil (King’s 24, from the collection of King George III), was created between 1483 and 1485 in Rome for Ludovico Agnelli, the bishop of Cosenza. It is lavishly illuminated, and contains several texts from Ovid as well as the Aeneid.

Virgil’s Aeneid recounts the story of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the kings of ancient Rome. Aeneas, like so many heroic figures in mythology, was part-human and part-divine; he was said to have been the son of Prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite.  He features in the Iliad as an ally of Troy, and was one of the few Trojans to survive the fall of the city.  With the help of the gods, Aeneas and his crew (which included his father, son, and a group of warriors) succeeded in escaping the slaughter.

The Aeneads took to the sea, eventually arriving in the kingdom of the Latins after years of wandering. They made several stops along the way – perhaps most famously in the kingdom of Carthage (where Aeneas engaged in a disastrous affair with queen Dido which was the source of unending enmity between the cities of Rome and Carthage). Most importantly for our purposes, though, was the Aeneads’ sojourn on the island of Sicily, where Aeneas’s father Anchises died peacefully.  In honour of his father, Aeneas announced a series of contests for his men, including a boat race, running, wrestling with staffs, archery, and javelin throwing. 

K019498 King's 24 f. 115 detail

Detail of a miniature of the Sicilian games, including a boat race, archery, wrestling with staffs, and racing, and in the background,  the burning of the Trojan fleet, at the beginning of book V of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy (Rome), between 1483 and 1485, King's 24, f. 115

These kinds of competitions (particularly running and wrestling) featured in the earliest Olympic games.  Those lucky enough to have tickets for London 2012 will be able to see very similar events, although without, one hopes, the Trojan fleet burning in the background.

23 March 2012

Using Our Catalogues

Regular users of the British Library will know that two online manuscripts catalogues are currently in operation. The new system has the catchy title SOCAM (Search Our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts), and now contains all the catalogue descriptions previously available online, plus those for manuscripts catalogued since 2009. We'd like to encourage you to start using SOCAM as soon as possible, because the old system, MOLCAT (Manuscripts Online Catalogue), will be switched off in autumn 2012.

SOCAM has many advantages over the old system, for both users and cataloguers. In particular, it has an enhanced search facility, hopefully making it easier for users to locate what they're looking for -- no mean feat when you consider that most medieval manuscripts lack title-pages and sometimes any indication of date or place of origin. From the cataloguers' perspective, there are now clear guidelines across the British Library as to which information should be recorded. Historically, different departments -- the India Office, Asian and African Studies, Photographs and so forth -- had different cataloguing standards, which have now been amalgamated for the benefit of our users.

The catalogue of books owned by Rochester Cathedral Priory, c. 1202 (London, British Library, MS Royal 5 B. XII, f. 2r).

Followers of this blog may recall that cataloguing manuscripts isn't a modern phenomenon. In a post published in October 2011 (Beauty in the eye of the beholder), we drew your attention to a late 12th or early 13th century catalogue compiled for the Benedictine monks of Rochester Cathedral. Then as now, the need to know what was to be found in a given library, and what each manuscript contains, is paramount.

22 March 2012

The Theodore Psalter

The opening page of Psalm 1 in the Theodore Psalter (London, British Library, MS Additional 19352, f. 1r).

The Theodore Psalter (British Library Additional MS 19352) is one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts to survive from the Byzantine Empire. Completed in Constantinople in February 1066, the Psalter consists of 208 folios which include 440 separate images, making it the most fully illuminated Psalter to come down from Byzantium. It is undeniably one of the greatest treasures of Byzantine manuscript production and of supreme importance for our understanding of Byzantine art.

Two centuries before its production, the iconoclastic movement had been defeated, making representational art obligatory for divine worship. From that time onwards the art of icons once again flourished. It is within this context that the Theodore Psalter should be understood.

The Psalter contains 151 Psalms (ff. 1-189), a twelve-syllable poem on David’s early life in the form of a liturgical drama, in dialogue, based on Psalm 151 (ff. 189v-191), a prayer offered on behalf of Abbot Michael (ff. 191v–192), the Canticles (ff. 192v–208), as well as a dedication and colophon (f. 207v and f. 208). The Psalms and the Canticles are numbered next to their titles and the Psalm text is divided between kathismata and staseis, according to liturgical practice. A plethora of initial letters is ornamented.

The beginning of the twelve-syllable poem on David (London, British Library, MS Additional 19352, f. 189v).

The colophon provides us with useful information about both the commission and the production of the Psalter. It reads as follows (f 208): Ἔσχεν οὖν τέλος ἡ τοιάδε τῶν θείων ψαλμῶν / δέλτος κατὰ τὸν φεβρουάριον μῆνα / τῆς δ' ἰνδικτ(ιῶνος). τοῦ ,ςφοδ' ἔτους, ἐπιταγῇ μὲν / γεγενημένῃ τοῦ θεσπεσίου πατρὸς καὶ συγκέλλου / Μιχαὴλ καὶ καθηγουμένου τῆς πανα/γιωτάτης καὶ πανευφήμου μονῆς / Χειρὶ δὲ γραφὲν καὶ χρυσογραφηθὲν / Θεοδώρου μοναχοῦ πρεσβυτέρου τῆς αὐτῆς μονῆς καὶ βιβλιογράφου τοῦ ἐκ Και/σαρείας, ἧς ποιμὴν καὶ φωστὴρ ὁ κλεινὸς / ὦπται καὶ λαμπρὸς Βασίλειος ὁ τῷ / ὄντι μέγας καὶ ὢν καὶ καλούμενος Χριστῷ ἄνακτι δόξα καὶ κράτος πρέπει.

“This volume of the divine Psalms was finished in the month of February of the fourth indiction of the year 6574 [i.e., 1066], in accordance with the order of the divinely inspired father and synkellos Michael, abbot of the all-holy and all good famed monastery.” Although the name of the monastery is lost, we have strong evidence from the manuscript that it was the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople. The colophon continues as follows: “Written by hand and written (ornamented) in gold by the hand of Theodore the priest of the same monastery and scribe from Caesarea, for which the glorious and brilliant Basil has appeared as shepherd and luminary, (Basil) who was indeed great and was named so. To Christ the King does all the glory and the power belong!’’

The colophon in the Theodore Psalter (London, British Library, MS Additional 19352, f. 208r).

This colophon text reveals two names related to the production of the manuscript. The first is Theodore from Caesarea, monk and presbyter (Θεόδωρος [ἐκ Καισαρείας]: E. Gamillscheg & D. Harlfinger, Repertorium der griechischen Kopisten 800-1600, 1: Grossbritannien, 3 vols, Vienna 1981, 1A, no 131), who styles himself as both cleric and scribe (βιβλιογράφου) of the monastery. His role in the production of the codex is twofold: he not only wrote the text (γραφέν) but he ornamented this manuscript in gold (χρυσογραφηθέν). The other name is that of the abbot of the monastery, Michael, who is described with formulaic monastic titles, namely as the "divinely inspired (θεσπεσίου) father and synkellos" of the monastery. Unfortunately we know nothing about this abbot, except that it was he who commissioned this Psalter.

A page from the Theodore Psalter, completed in February 1066 (London, British Library, MS Additional 19352, f. 100r).

The Theodore Psalter has been digitised in full as part of the British Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Dr Dimitrios Skrekas, Cataloguer, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project

20 March 2012

Happy St Cuthbert's Day

Today is the 1,325th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert, one of England's greatest saints. Consecrated bishop of Lindisfarne in AD 685, Cuthbert retired to his hermitage on the Inner Farne, where he died on 20 March 687.

St Cuthbert on his deathbed, from a 12th century northern English copy of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 73r).

The British Library is currently fundraising to purchase the St Cuthbert Gospel for the nation. See our website for how you can help us raise the £9 million required, for what is the earliest surviving intact European book, placed in Cuthbert's grave at his translation in 698.

CF034939 jpgcropped
The binding of the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel.

St Cuthbert's career is beautifully illustrated in Yates Thompson 26, a 12th century copy of Bede's prose Uita Cuthberti. Here is a miniature of Cuthbert teaching at Lindisfarne, taken from that same manuscript. We're delighted to have such an outstanding book in our collections, and the opportunity to gain another in the form of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Cuthbert teaching at Lindisfarne (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 35v).

UPDATE (17 April 2012) The St Cuthbert Gospel has now been acquired by the British Library, following a successful fundraising appeal. Thank you to all our supporters for making this possible.

19 March 2012

The Peasants are Revolting

Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, each inscribed with their name for ease of identification (London, British Library, MS Royal 18 E. I, f. 165v).

English history is littered with protests against the ruling classes, one of the most notorious being the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. This manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicle, made in the 15th century and depicting the rebellion, is currently on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library. And the entire manuscript can also be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

One of the leaders of the revolt was Walter (Wat) Tyler, described by Froissart as "a tiler of houses, an ungracious patron". A native of Kent or Essex, Tyler reputedly instigated the rising by killing a collector of the recently-introduced poll tax, who had indecently assaulted his daughter. A large gathering of rebels marched on Maidstone, Canterbury and London, seizing and beheading Simon Sudbury, the chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury, together with Robert Hales, the treasurer of England.

This copy of Froissart's Chronicles illustrates Wat Tyler’s demise. Having been summoned to speak with King Richard II (1377–1399) at Smithfield on 15 June 1381, Tyler outlined the rebels' demands, which included the abolition of villeinage and serfdom, and nobody to exercise lordship except the king. A fracas then ensued, in part (it was alleged) because Tyler kept his head covered in the king's presence, leading the mayor of London, William Walworth, to attempt to arrest him. Tyler struck at Walworth with his dagger, but the mayor was wearing armour under his cloak, and in retaliation pierced Tyler's neck with his sword. Reports state that the other rebels quickly dispersed, having been granted a royal pardon. The fatally-wounded Tyler was not so fortunate. Walworth had him dragged from the nearby hospital of St Bartholomew, and summarily executed at Smithfield.

The wounding of Wat Tyler by William Walworth, mayor of London, in the presence of King Richard II (London, British Library, MS Royal 16 E. I, f. 175r).

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library is a free exhibition space, open seven days a week. It houses some of the world's most significant books, from Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, to Handel and the Beatles.

14 March 2012

The Private Lives of Medieval Kings


The DVD of The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, filmed largely at the British Library, is available from our online shop, priced £15. Presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, and featuring the assorted hands, heads and legs of various curators, the DVD contains all three episodes from the television series originally broadcast on BBC Four: (1) Ruling by the Book; (2) What a King Should Know; and (3) Libraries Gave Us Power. This final episode is shown again tonight on BBC HD, at 19.00, and will then be available on the BBC iPlayer.