Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from April 2012

29 April 2012

Monkeys in the Margins

C11404-06a Add 18851 f. 13 detail

Detail from a full strew border of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 13


If you happen to be in the mood for a bit of weekend whimsy (and who isn't?), we would like to draw your attention once again to the British Library's 'Isabella Breviary'.  The Breviary was created for Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), and was the manuscript featured in our 2011 calendar series (see here for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December). 

There is much to recommend this magnificent manuscript, produced in Bruges in the late 1480s and illustrated by the foremost artists of its day, but particularly noteworthy are the many strew and foliate borders which surround the text and miniatures.  Most of these borders contain beautifully naturalistic paintings of plants and animals, including a remarkable number of monkeys.  Monkeys appear regularly across the Breviary's 523 folios, and (like a lot of medieval simians) they are usually shown engaging in recognizably 'human' activities.  Isabella's monkeys, for example, can be seen playing the bagpipes and playing games, capturing wildlife, hunting, spinning, eating and drinking, and even tending to the upkeep of the borders in which they dwell.  We would be interested to hear your thoughts on this remarkable group; a few examples can be seen below.


C11420-04b  Add 18851 f. 77 detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey tending to the vinework that surrounds it, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 77

C11425-02c Add 18851 f. 96 detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey tending to the vinework that surrounds it, watched by a bird, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 96

C11468-06c Add 18851 f. 270 detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey looking at itself in a mirror, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 270

C11506-01b Add 18851 f. 419v detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 419v

C11506-05 Add 18851 f. 421v

Detail from a full border of a monkey with a basket trying to capture a bird, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 421v

C11515-08b Add 18851 f. 459 detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey wearing a cowl spinning thread, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 459

C11518-07b Add 18851 f. 470v detail

Detail from a full border of a monkey playing a game (possibly blowing bubbles?), from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 470v

- Sarah J Biggs


26 April 2012

Medieval News and Views

Did you know that the British Library has its own e-journal, which regularly publishes articles relating to medieval and early modern manuscripts? The Electronic British Library Journal (eBLJ for short) has been in existence since 2002, and to date it's published more than 20 articles on pre-modern manuscript culture, ranging from Greek gospel-books and Anglo-Saxon prayerbooks to the collecting activities of 17th- and 18th-century antiquaries.

A page from an illustrated pharmacopoeial compilation, discussed in Laura Nuvoloni's article "The Harleian medical manuscripts" (London, British Library, MS Harley 1585, f. 48v).

A full list of these articles is given below. We'd like to draw your attention to two particular groups of items on a specific theme, both of which originated from projects at the British Library. In 2008 the Electronic British Library Journal published four articles by Laura Nuvoloni and others, relating to medical manuscripts in the Harley collection; and in 2011 the same journal published a further eleven articles on various aspects of the Harley collection, following a highly successful conference on the same subject.

A page from the Splendor Solis, discussed by Jörg Völlnagel in eBLJ 11, article 8 (London, British Library, MS Harley 3469, f. 18r).

If you wish to consider writing an article for the Electronic British Library Journal, please see the notes for contributors.

Julian Harrison, The English reception of Hugh of Saint-Victor's Chronicle (2002, article 1)

Barbara Raw, A new parallel to the prayer "De tenebris" in the Book of Nunnaminster (2004, article 1)

H. R. Woudhuysen, Writing-tables and table-books (2004, article 3)

Eileen A. Joy, Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the "little-known country" of the Cotton library (2005, article 1)

Peter Kidd, A Franciscan Bible illuminated in the style of William de Brailes (2007, article 8)

Judith Collard, Effigies ad regem Angliae and the representation of kingship in thirteenth-century English royal culture (2007, article 9)

Constant J. Mews and others, Guy of Saint-Denis and the compilation of texts about music in Harley MS 281 (2008, article 6)

Laura Nuvoloni, The Harleian medical manuscripts (2008, article 7)

Peter Murray Jones, Witnesses to medieval medical practice in the Harley collection (2008, article 8)

Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, A mirror for deaf ears? A medieval mystery (2008, article 9)

Linda Ehrsam Voigts, Complementary witnesses to Ralph Hoby's 1437 treatise on astronomical medicine (2008, article 10)

Peter Kidd, Codicological clues to the patronage of Stowe MS. 39 (2009, article 5)

Pamela Porter, A fresh look at Harley MS. 1413: "A book ... fairly written in the German or Switz language" (2009, article 10)

John Spence, A lost manuscript of the "Rymes of [...] Randolf Erl of Chestre" (2010, article 6)

Antonia Fitzpatrick, A unique insight into the career of a Cistercian monk at the University of Oxford (2010, article 13)

Frances Harris, The Harleys as collectors (2011, article 1)

Deirdre Jackson, Humfrey Wanley and the Harley collection (2011, article 2)

Maud Pérez-Simon, Aesthetics and meaning in the images of the Roman d'Alexandre en prose (2011, article 3)

Sarah Pittaway, Visual rhetoric and Yorkist propaganda in Lydgate's Fall of Princes (2011, article 4)

Kathryn M. Rudy, Kissing images, unfurling rolls, measuring wounds, sewing badges and carrying talismans (2011, article 5)

Hanno Wijsman, Good morals for a couple at the Burgundian court (2011, article 6)

Anne D. Hedeman, Advising France through the example of England (2011, article 7)

Jörg Völlnagel, Splendor Solis or Splendour of the Sun -- a German alchemical manuscript (2011, article 8)

Alison Tara Walker, The Westminster Tournament Challenge and Thomas Wriothesley's workshop (2011, article 9)

Catherine Yvard, The metamorphoses of a late fifteenth-century Psalter (2011, article 10)

Francesca Manzari, Harley MS. 2979 and the Books of Hours produced in Avignon by the workshop of Jean de Toulouse (2011, article 11)

Mika Takiguchi, Some Greek Gospel manuscripts in the British Library (2011, article 13) 

23 April 2012

The Tribal Hidage Online

The Tribal Hidage may be an unfamilar name to some, but to Anglo-Saxon historians it is one of the most important documents for the study of early English history. Compiled sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Tribal Hidage is a list of 35 tribes south of the River Humber, many of them known only from this source, together with the number of hides assigned to each territory. Some scholars have supposed that this is a tribute list, or that it is simply an early example of book-keeping. Debate also continues as to whether the document in question was created in Mercia or Northumbria.

The oldest surviving witness of the Tribal Hidage: England, 1st half of the 11th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, f. 6v).

The earliest and arguably most complete medieval manuscript of the Tribal Hidage is now available online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. The manuscript in question is Harley 3271, an 11th century miscellany which includes (among other items) the Grammar of Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham (ff. 7r-90r), and notes on the computus (ff. 90r-92v). Harley 3271 features texts written in Old English (as is the Tribal Hidage) and in Latin, with its place of manufacture and medieval provenance being uncertain.

The opening page of Ælfric's Grammar: England, 1st half of the 11th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, f. 7r).

We hope that scholars will make great use of this digital version to continue their debate on the origins, dating and purpose of the Tribal Hidage. At the same time, we are keen that the other components of Harley 3271 receive equal attention, since this volume brings together a fascinating variety of texts from pre-Conquest England. Who knows, perhaps someone will be able to determine where and for whom this Anglo-Saxon manuscript was made.

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19 April 2012

St Cuthbert Gospel -- Thank You!

We'd like to thank everyone who made it possible for the British Library to save the St Cuthbert Gospel for the nation. Every donation, large or small, was hugely appreciated. This was the biggest fundraising campaign in the Library's history. We cannot mention every donor in person (many were anonymous), but we must acknowledge the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the Foyle Foundation and the Garfield Weston Foundation for responding so positively to our appeal, and in so doing encouraging others to help us meet our target.

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A huge amount of work has gone on behind the scenes, not just to raise the £9million purchase price, but also to begin raising awareness of the St Cuthbert Gospel by digitising this national treasure and placing it in a new display at the British Library, accompanied by an interpretative exhibition. Don't forget that you can see zoomable, colour images of the whole manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Detail from the St Cuthbert Gospel (the opening of John 2), illustrating the manuscript's decoration and beautiful uncial script (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 6r).

There has been a vast amount of press coverage, and you may have felt overwhelmed by the traffic on Twitter. Here are some of the highlights of the various news reports on the St Cuthbert Gospel:

BBC News British Library acquires St Cuthbert Gospel

Today programme on BBC Radio 4

interview by Mishal Husain on BBC World

You may also be interested to read the various reports of the acquisition by Reuters, the Guardian, Daily Mail and Northern Echo.

A reminder that the St Cuthbert Gospel is currently on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library (7 days a week and free to visit). Following a conservation assessment, the manuscript is displayed open at ff. 50v-51r, and we must say that it looks fantastic. (In recent years, while the Gospel was on loan to the British Library, it could only be displayed in its closed position.) An accompanying exhibition in the main entrance hall at our St Pancras building explains the story of the St Cuthbert Gospel, its many travels over the past 1,300 years, and our plans for making it better known.

The lower pastedown in the St Cuthbert Gospel, recording its donation to the English Jesuit College at Liège in 1769.

Some people have queried why we don't use gloves when handling the St Cuthbert Gospel and comparable treasures. You can find out why here.

17 April 2012

St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation

The British Library has acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel after the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Following a detailed conservation assessment, the manuscript has recently been fully digitised and you can now see it here on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The manuscript has been added to the Library's collections as Additional MS 89000.


The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, covered in leather dyed a deep crimson, and with a central motif containing a chalice from which stems project, terminating in a leaf or bud and four fruits (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000).

The Gospel, which is a manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, is the earliest intact European book and is intimately associated with Cuthbert, one of Britain's foremost saints. It was created in the late 7th century in the north-east of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin, apparently in 698. It was discovered when the coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104 on the occasion of the removal of Cuthbert's body to a new shrine. The Gospel has a beautifully-worked, original, red leather binding in excellent condition, and is the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out.


The opening page of the St Cuthbert Gospel, beginning with the text of the Gospel of St John, and with an erased 12th-century inscription in the upper margin recording the manuscript's discovery in 1104 (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 1r).

We are now taking the first steps to increase public awareness and understanding of the Gospel. Today a new display opens in the front hall of the British Library which runs until 17 June 2012. This display explores both the significance of the Gospel as a book and its association with St Cuthbert, as well as charting the many journeys that the book has made. The Gospel itself is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery, along with a 9th-century copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and a beautifully illuminated 12th-century copy of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert. In recent years the Gospel has been displayed closed to show the outstanding decorated cover. Following the recent conservation assessment, is now on display open for the first time in the Library's St Pancras building. Two pages of the text of St John's Gospel will be shown until the display in the Entrance Hall closes on 17 June.

A page from the St Cuthbert Gospel relating part of the story of Lazarus, with a contemporary marginal note reading "de mortuorum", marking out a page to be read at masses for the dead (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 51r).

The fundraising campaign to acquire the St Cuthbert Gospel was the biggest that the Library has ever run. The single largest donation to the fundraising campaign was a £4.5m grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Other major donors included the Art Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation. There were many other donations from charitable trusts, foundations and hundreds of individuals and we are extremely grateful for every single donation which has enabled us to save this wonderful manuscript for the nation.

You can read the press release here.

An inscription added to the St Cuthbert Gospel in the 13th century, recording that the manuscript was discovered in 1104 "at the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb" (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. ii verso).

16 April 2012

Bows and Arrows

Of all the sports in the modern Olympic programme, archery is perhaps the one which most conjures up images of the Middle Ages. (Synchronised swimming, anyone?) Today archery is a recreational activity, introduced to the Olympics at Paris in 1900 and reinstated, after a 50 year hiatus, at Munich in 1972. (Useless fact of the day: Belgium is ranked the third best nation in Olympic competition, behind South Korea and the United States of America.)

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady shooting an arrow at a rabbit, from the Taymouth Hours, England, S. E. (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century: London, British London, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v.

In the past, of course, archery had its origins in hunting and warfare. But archery was first recognised as a sport in 14th-century England, when males aged between 7 and 60 years were required to take part in tournaments, so important was it considered to the defence of the realm. Meanwhile, the first organised "modern" archery contest is reported to have taken place in London in 1583, attended by 3,000 spectators.

Detail of a miniature of the Christian fleet approaching Gaeta with archers poised to defend the city, from the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons, England (probably London), c. 1475 – c. 1485: London, British Library, MS Harley 326, f. 29v.

Most medieval depictions of archery illustrate warfare or hunting, as in the miniature above, taken from Harley 326, a 15th-century English copy of the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons. It's important to remember that the longbow (popularised in England) and the crossbow (invented in France) were both deadly weapons, responsible for the deaths of thousands of men on the battlefield.

Detail of a miniature of a battle with archers and riders in armour, at the beginning of book 7, by the Master of the London Wavrin, from Bellum Gallicum (Les commentaires de Cesar), France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1473-1476: London, British Library, MS Royal 16 G VIII, f. 189r.

We are equally amused, however, by medieval depictions of archers in other contexts. The first image in this post is taken from the Taymouth Hours, and shows a noblewoman shooting a rabbit at point-blank range. And here is another comic image, of an ape aiming his arrow at a tortoiseshell butterfly, taken from the margins of a 14th-century French copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal. An unfair contest!


Detail of a marginal miniature of an ape archer aiming at a butterfly above, from the right margin of the folio, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century: London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E III, f. 89r.

This is the second in our series of posts relating to the Olympic games. You can read the first, London Games and "Sicilian Games", here.

13 April 2012

The Taymouth Hours

C6653-02 f. 7

Miniature prefacing the prayers to be said at Mass, with a crowned woman (probably the first owner of the manuscript) kneeling underneath a canopy while a priest raises the host, and a bas-de-page scene of Jerome writing, inspired by the dove of the Holy Spirit; on his book is scribbled 'Douz sire (al) comencement,' the beginning of the text above.  From the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, f. 7.


Several sharp-eyed readers have noticed a number of suspicious visual similarities between the recently-discovered Unicorn Cookbook and another well-known manuscript in the British Library, the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13; see especially folios 85, 86, 107v and 188).

Given that, it seems like an opportune time to highlight the Taymouth Hours here, particularly since the manuscript is the subject of a soon-to-be-released monograph from British Library Publishing.


C6666-08 f. 62

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a wildman seizing a lady out collecting flowers, with a caption beneath reading, 'et tient le wodewose & rauist un des damoyseles coillaint des fleurs', from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, f. 62


The Taymouth Hours was created in England (probably in London) in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, and is one of the most famous manuscripts of its period.  Its renown is due in large part to its extensive programme of illumination; it contains an illustrated calendar and nearly 400 miniatures and bas-de-page paintings.  Many of these illuminations take their inspiration from the Bible, but there are also images drawn from bestiaries, lives of the saints, legendaries, romances, and tales of chivalry - with a number of grotesques thrown into the mix, of course.  Included as well are some scenes of daily life for the aristocracy.  For example, the section of prayers to the Virgin at Lauds (one of the canonical hours) is decorated with a remarkable group of 30 images showing noble ladies engaged in  hunting - with bows, with hounds, and even with spears.


C6670-07 f. 77v

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady killing a boar with a spear, from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, f. 77v

C6672-03a f. 83v

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of four ladies slaughtering a stage they have hunted, from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, f. 83v


Part of the allure of the Taymouth Hours is the mystery surrounding its creation.  It seems likely that it was produced for a royal patron, and the prevalence of images of royal (or crowned) women in its illuminations indicates that it may have been commissioned by or for a queen (see the first image above, and below).  Scholars of the manuscript have variously argued that the original owner may have been Joan, the daughter of Edward II (who married David II of Scotland in 1328), Isabelle of France, or Philippa of Hainault, the queen of Edward III.


C6762-02 f. 139

Miniature of a crowned royal woman (probably the first owner of the manuscript) being presented to an enthroned Christ by the Virgin Mary, and a bas-de-page scene of the Devil carrying souls off towards Hell, from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, f. 139


An upcoming monograph on the Hours will seek to resolve this debate, among others.  In her book The Taymouth Hours: Stories and the Construction of the Self in Late Medieval England, Kathryn A Smith (Department of Art History, New York University) will argue that the Taymouth Hours was indeed commissioned by Philippa of Hainault, and was intended as a gift for Edward III's 13-year-old sister Eleanor of Woodstock, on the occasion of her betrothal to Reinald II of Guelders in 1331.  Dr Smith's book, which is the first comprehensive study of the manuscript, will also focus on the complicated relationship between the text of the Hours and the illuminations that accompany it.  The Taymouth Hours monograph will be available for purchase in May.  A DVD containing images of the entire manuscript is included; if you can't wait until you have the book in your hands, please see the fully-digitised version online here.

UPDATE (May 2012): Kathryn Smith's book has now been published, and can be purchased from the British Library shop

- Sarah J Biggs

10 April 2012

First Science Manuscripts Published

A selection of manuscripts in our Harley Science Project has now been published to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. More volumes will be added in the coming weeks, and full details will be posted here. The recent upload starts the final phase of what has been a very exciting, 18 month project, opening up access to the British Library's outstanding collections.

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The first upload includes works by some of the greatest ancient and medieval scientists, such as Bede, Isidore of Seville, Martianus Capella and Pliny the Elder. The manuscripts deal with astrology, astronomy, the computus, mathematics, natural history and medicine, among other subjects, demonstrating the broad range of items incorporated in the Harley Science Project. It's particularly pleasing to note that the manuscripts in question cover many centuries of scientific knowledge, and that they were made in England, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, besides featuring texts in a variety of medieval languages (including English, Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Middle Dutch).

One volume was the subject of an earlier blogpost, Help us date and localise this manuscript, and we are extremely grateful for the assistance of those readers who provided us with information. We hope that you derive great enjoyment from this first upload, and that it leads to many great discoveries.

Harley MS 1009 William Rede, Astronomical tables with canons (England, 14th century)

Harley MS 1010 Medical miscellany (England, 13th-14th century)

Harley MS 1121 Miscellany including Livre de Sydrac (England, 14th century)

Harley MS 1585 Illustrated pharmacopeial compilation (Netherlands, 12th century)

Precatio Terrae: Netherlands, 12th century (Harley MS 1585, f. 12v).

Harley MS 1676 Constantinus Africanus, Theorica Pantegni (France, 13th century)

Harley MS 1683 Barthelemy Pardoux, Lectures on Galen and others (France, 17th century)

Harley MS 1684 Medical miscellany (Netherlands, 15th century)

Harley MS 1685 Gariopontus, Passionarius Galeni (France, 12th century)

Harley MS 1687 Expositiones vocabulorum Bibliae, including a medical note (England or France, 13th century)

Harley MS 1706 Medical and verse miscellany (England, 15th-16th century)

Harley MS 1720 Georg Joachim Rheticus, Magnus canon doctrinae triangulorum (Germany, 16th century)

Harley MS 1735 John Crophill, Commonplace Book (England, 15th century)

Harley MS 1811 Nicholas of Lynn, Astronomical calendar with canons (14th-15th century)

Harley MS 2269 Astrological compendium (England, 16th century)

Harley MS 2332 Illustrated physician's almanac (England 1411-12)

Harley MS 2378 Medical and culinary miscellany (England, 1360 with later additions)

Harley MS 2558 Thomas Fayreford, Medical miscellany and commonplace book (England, 15th century)

Harley MS 2650 Martianus Capella, De astronomia (France or England, 12th century)

Harley MS 2651 Macer Floridus, De viribus herbarum (Italy, 1458)

Harley MS 2660 Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae and De natura rerum (Germany, 1136)

The opening page of Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae: Germany, 1136 (Harley MS 2660, f. 1v).

Harley MS 2676 Pliny the Elder, Historia naturalis (Florence, 1465-1467)

Harley MS 2766 Iulius Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis (Italy, 15th century)

Harley MS 3015 Miscellany including Bede's De natura rerum (England, 12th century)

Harley MS 3017 Miscellany of computistical and astronomical texts (France, 9th-10th centuries)

Consanguinity table preceding the text 'Ratio sphere Pitagore philisophi quam Apuleius descripsit': France, 9th-10th century (Harley MS 3017, f. 57v).

Harley MS 3022 Collection of texts on theology, instruction and natural history (Italy, 14th century)

Harley MS 3035 Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae and De natura rerum (Germany, 1495)

Harley MS 3092 Hrabanus Maurus, De universo and De computo (Germany, 12th century)