Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

12 posts from April 2012

06 April 2012

Hag Pesach Sameach! (Happy Passover!)

The Haggadah (plural Haggadot) is a service book read during Seder, a ritual feast which takes place on the eve of Passover to commemorate and reenact the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Haggadot produced in the Middle Ages were often richly illuminated. Besides biblical and midrashic images which depict episodes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, these service books were also illustrated with scenes of ritual connected to the liturgy of the Seder feast. They illustrate certain important moments in the service, providing visual aids for the participants in the ceremony.

F60073-15c Add 27210 f. 15

Detail of a miniature of the cleaning of the house, from the Golden Haggadah, Spain (Catalonia), second quarter of 14th century, Additional 27210, f. 15

In most of the Sephardi Haggadot produced in the fourteenth century, ritual scenes are placed at the end of the picture cycle preceding the text itself. ‘No leaven shall be found in your houses,’ says the Bible (Ex. 12:19). Later rabbinical sources give prompt instructions about how to search for leaven. In the Golden Haggadah, a diligent family with excellent skills of cooperation is depicted cleaning the house from tip to toe and searching for the hametz (leaven) by candle light.

Utensils in which leaven has been cooked must be cleansed before Passover. In the Golden Haggadah, a man is shown putting dishes into a cauldron full of boiling water in order to cleanse them. Behind him, those with strong nerves can take a look at the process of preparing Passover lambs.

F60073-15d  Add 27210 f. 15

Detail of a miniature of the slaughtering of the Passover lambs and cleansing dishes (hagalat kelim), from the Golden Haggadah, Spain (Catalonia), second quarter of 14th century, Additional 27210, f. 15

In Ashkenazi Haggadot, the illustrations are usually placed in the margins of the text pages. In the late thirteenth-century North French Miscellany, the beginning of the Haggadah is depicted with celebrants seated around a spread table. During the Seder feast four cups of wine should be consumed. In the miniature, the largest figure (the head of the family) lifts the first cup of wine, while the others are engaged in a discussion about the Exodus.


C03834-06  Add 11639, f. 205

Detail of a ritual illustration of celebrants around a Seder table with the master of the house lifting the first cup, at the beginning of the Haggadah, from the North French Miscellany, France (North), 1277-1286, Additional 11639, f. 205

The fourteenth-century Barcelona Haggadah portrays another moment of the Seder eve alongside this part of the text. Beneath the initial words is a miniature of a family by the Seder table, with the master of the house placing the basket of unleavened bread on the head of one of his children. Placing the basket over the head of the participants was a Sephardi custom and it was considered as a symbolic way to experience the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, carrying unleavened dough on their backs.

C03791-01a  Add 14761, f. 28v

Detail of an historiated initial-word panel Ha lahma aniya (The Bread of Affliction), at the beginning of the text of the Haggadah, with a miniature beneath of a family by the Seder table with the master of the house placing the basket of unleavened bread on the head of one of his children, from the Barcelona Haggadah, Spain (Catalonia), c. 1340, Additional 14761, f. 28v

On those occasions when the close of the Shabbat coincides with the Passover eve, the Seder ritual must be slightly modified. The memonic YaKeNHaZ that aids to recall sequence of ritual, sounds similar to the German jag den Haas meaning 'hunt the hare.' Thus, in the Ashkenazi Haggadah, the mnemonic appeared in a visual form as a hare-hunting scene.


EK1929 Add 14762 f. 4

Miniature of a hunting scene illustrating a mnemonic, YaKeNHaZ, that is, yayin (wine), kiddush (blessing), ner (candle), havdalah (separation), and zman (time), from the Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany (Ulm?), c. 1460, Additional 14762, f. 4

The artists of the Haggadot sometimes display a sense of humour. At certain points during the Seder ritual, foods having symbolic meanings have to be lifted. In the Brother Haggadah, the lifting of the bitter herb (maror), which is intended to symbolize the bitter fate of the Israelites in Egypt, is shown in two illustrations.  First, and most simply, the herb is depicted as a giant leaf flanked by two men. Beneath, a couple is seated at a spread Seder table with the husband pointing to his wife, saying, ‘This bitter herb.’ This gesture was certainly not a mandatory (or one hopes, even a common) element of the ritual, but rather the visual retort of this particular desperate husband.

C4533-02 Or 1404 f. 18

Detail of a miniature in two registers. Above is a giant leaf representing the maror flanked by two men. Below, a couple is seated at a spread Seder table with the husband pointing to his wife (indicating that she is the bitter herb), from the Brother Haggadah, Spain (Catalonia), third quarter of the 14th century, Or 1404, f. 18


- Zsofia Buda, Hebrew illuminated manuscript project

04 April 2012

The Psalter of Henry VI Now Online


Miniature of a mitred bishop and nobles sitting in a choir within a church, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v

Regular readers of our blog will know that the British Library currently has a number of projects underway to make fully digitised medieval manuscripts available on the Digitised Manuscripts website - including the long-running Greek manuscript project, Harley Science, and our most recent undertaking, which will include a number of manuscripts from the Royal exhibition.

Alongside these projects is an ongoing effort to upload some of the British Library's manuscript treasures, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Old English Hexateuch, and the Æthelstan Psalter. Today we are pleased to announce the latest addition to this group - the Psalter of Henry VI (Cotton Domitian A. XVII), a beautifully illuminated 15th century Parisian manuscript.

The Psalter of Henry VI was shown in our recent exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and was featured in our post A Book of Two Princes.  Check out the fully digitised version here!


Miniature of monks seated in a choir in a church during a funeral Mass, with five spectres of skeletal death behind them, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 150v


Miniature of the Coronation of the Virgin, with an illuminated initial 'E'(xultate) and a full border, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 151

02 April 2012

A Calendar Page for April 2012

For more details on calendar pages or the Hours of Joanna of Castile, please see the entry for January 2012.

Add 18852 ff. 4v-5

Calendar pages for April, Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 4v-5

This opening for April contains two separate but connected scenes that celebrate the arrival of spring.  On the left are some shepherds with their flock; one is at work shearing while another guides the sheep into a paddock (and we would welcome ideas about what the man in the centre is doing).  At the top of the right hand folio is a small painting of Taurus the bull.  Below, a woman holding a spindle stands with a well-dressed man; the courting theme is continued by another couple on horseback, who seem much more interested in each other than in where their horses are headed.

01 April 2012

Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library

A long-lost medieval cookbook, containing recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds and even unicorns, has been discovered at the British Library. Professor Brian Trump of the British Medieval Cookbook Project described the find as near-miraculous. "We've been hunting for this book for years. The moment I first set my eyes on it was spine-tingling."

An illustration of a unicorn on a grill, from a 14th-century manuscript.

Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r).

Experts believe that the cookbook was compiled by Geoffrey Fule, who worked in the kitchens of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England (1328-1369). Geoffrey had a reputation for blending unusual flavours – one scholar has called him "the Heston Blumenthal of his day" – and everything points to his hand being behind the compilation.

After recipes for herring, tripe and codswallop (fish stew, a popular dish in the Middle Ages) comes that beginning "Taketh one unicorne". The recipe calls for the beast to be marinaded in cloves and garlic, and then roasted on a griddle. The cookbook's compiler, doubtless Geoffrey Fule himself, added pictures in its margins, depicting the unicorn being prepared and then served. Sarah J Biggs, a British Library expert on medieval decoration, commented that "the images are extraordinary, almost exactly as we'd expect them to be, if not better".

A marginal illustration of a lady holding the head of a unicorn, from a medieval manuscript.

A lady bringing the unicorn's head to the table (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137v).

The recipe for cooking blackbirds is believed to be the origin of the traditional English nursery rhyme "Sing a song of sixpence / A pocket full of rye / Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie." Professor Trump added that he was tempted to try some of the recipes, but suspected that sourcing ingredients would be challenging. "Unfortunately, they don't stock unicorn in my local branch of Tesco."

A marginal illustration of the remains of a unicorn in a basket, from a medieval manuscript.
The remains of the unicorn (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 138r).