Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from May 2012

31 May 2012

Royal Workshop: A Call for Your Feedback

K067546 Royal 17 E. iii f. 93v

Detail of a miniature of a lecture, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus (translated by Jean Corbechon), De proprietatibus rerum (Livre des proprietez des choses), France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 17 E. iii, f. 93v

As regular readers of this blog will have seen, the British Library is running a workshop to be held at the University of Durham on 6 June 2012 (that’s just one week away!). You are warmly invited to attend this workshop, which is free and open to the public. It will begin at 2pm and will take place in The Williams Library, St Chad’s College (click here for a map).

In addition to your attendance, we would welcome your feedback and responses to some of the questions posed below. Selected responses written into the comments section of this blog or emailed to [email protected] will be read aloud at the workshop, and, of course, fully attributed if you choose to provide your name.

This workshop is structured so that guided presentations will blend with open discussion, allowing for a productive and mutually beneficial event for us here at the British Library and you, as researchers and users of our resources.

The workshop will be divided into two parts.

Part I:  Research using digital resources

A presentation by Dr Joanna Fronska, which gives insights into the ‘behind the scenes process of digitisation’, the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, and the British Library's new Digitised Manuscripts website.

After Dr Fronska’s presentation, discussion will be opened up to workshop participants, centring on the questions below. We would also welcome your responses to the following questions:

  • How do you use digital resources in your research?
  • What do you like / dislike about existing digital resources?
  • Which websites are most useful?
  • What are the respective merits of our Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts versus our new Digitised Manuscripts website?
  • What developments, such as annotation tools or inter-library searchability, would be most useful for your research?

After a coffee and tea break, the workshop will resume with part two.

Part II: Short Panel presentations on manuscripts in the Royal collection

A number of speakers will present brief papers that address following questions:  

  • ‘How were the illuminated manuscripts in the royal library used and received by their owners?’  
  • What are the characteristics of illustrated manuscripts collected by English monarchs?
  • How did monastic manuscripts enter the royal collection, or what was their function within the library?
  • How representative is what survives of the royal library, and why is there a relative lack of liturgical or private devotional books in Royal?

All workshop participants will be invited to contribute to the conversation, while it is taking place among the panellists (in other words, we will not be holding questions till the end but creating an open discussion based around a prepared structure).

A summary of the discussions will be published on the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog, with a possibility of papers being offered to the Electronic British Library Journal

We look forward to seeing you at the University of Durham!

E100162 Royal 6 E. vi f. 329

Detail of an historiated initial 'C'(olor) of an artist mixing colours, from James le Palmer's Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360- c. 1375, Royal 6 E. vi, f. 329

29 May 2012

Magna Carta's 800th Anniversary

The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary since Magna Carta was issued by King John of England (1199-1216). As you may already be aware, the British Library holds two of the four surviving original Magna Cartas, produced in June 1215 (the others are at Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral), together with other important documents relating to Magna Carta, including the Articles of the Barons and the papal bull of Innocent III by which the charter was annulled.

King John, in Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, St Albans, 1250-1259 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 9r).

We are delighted to announce that the British Library is partnering with the University of East Anglia in a new, three-year, AHRC-funded research project on Magna Carta. Nicholas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at UEA, is the Principal Investigator for the project, and Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library, is one of the co-investigators, as are Professor David Carpenter of King's College London, Dr Paul Brand of the University of Oxford, Dr Louise Wilkinson of Canterbury Christ Church University, and Professor Andy Day of UEA.

The project aims to expand public and scholarly understanding of the making and meaning of Magna Carta. The outputs of the project will be disseminated on the web, at a conference in June 2015, and through the British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition in 2015.

For more information about Magna Carta, please see our earlier post, Magna Carta in 500 words. You can also go to our dedicated Magna Carta webpages to view one of the original manuscripts, watch our virtual curator answer frequently asked questions, and read a translation of the document into English.


27 May 2012

From Boethius to John Dee: More Scientific Manuscripts Published

One of the pleasures of working with old books is that it offers fascinating insight into the lives of past generations. Take Harley MS 647, for instance, one of the scientific manuscripts recently uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Wouldn't we love to know more about the Anglo-Saxon scribe who added his name at the end of this book, noting that he had "found and corrected" it? Did Geruvigus live at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, to whom this volume later belonged? Was he tasked with correcting the book by the abbot, or did he undertake this at his own initiative? How long was he active as a scribe, and what was his fate?

The scribal invocation 'Ista proprio sudore nomina uno quoque propria. Ego indignus sacerdos et monachus nomine Geruvigus repperi ac scripsi. Pax legentibus': England, 11th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 647, f. 21v).

Many of the scientific manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection have been digitised and recatalogued thanks to the generosity of William and Judy Bollinger. Here is a list of new additions to the website, featuring books made in England, Flanders, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain, and ranging in date from the 9th to the 17th centuries. These volumes include works by Boethius, Cicero, Isidore of Seville, John Dee and Thomas Hobbes, among others. Maybe you will discover among them other personalities such as Geruvigus, staring out at us from the pages of these manuscripts.

Harley MS 79 Albertus Magnus, De mineralibus et lapidibus (England and Italy, 14th-15th century)

Harley MS 270 Matthaeus Platearius (attrib.), Liber de simplici medicina (England, 12th-13th century)

Harley MS 321 Scientific miscellany (England, c. 1387)

Harley MS 531 Miscellaneous texts on astronomy, astrology and meteorology (England, 1272-1474)

Harley MS 532 Miscellany including John Dee, Epilogismus calculi diurnus planetarum tum longitudinis (England, 16th-17th century)

The opening page of John Dee's Epilogismus calculi diurnus planetarum tum longitudinis: England, late-16th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 532, f. 122v).

Harley MS 546 Medical miscellany (Ireland, 1459)

Harley MS 647 Collection of astronomical and astrological texts (France, c. 820)

Detail of the constellation of Orion, in a copy of Cicero's Aratea with extracts from Hyginus, Astronomica: Northern France, c. 820 (London, British Library, MS Harley 647, f. 8r).

Harley MS 937 Physician's folding almanac (England, c. 1430-1431)

Harley MS 1737 Boethius, De institutione arithmetica (?France, 12th century)

Harley MS 1914 Yūhannā ibn Sarābiyūn (Serapion the Elder), Breviarium medicinae (Italy, 14th century)

Harley MS 2320 Miscellany of treatises relating to prognostication, astrology and braiding (England, 15th century)

A lunar prognostication in verse: England, 15th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 2320, f. 31r).

Harley MS 2506 Collection of astronomical and astrological treatises (France, c. 990-1000)

Harley MS 2579 Miscellany including Macer Floridus, De viribus herbarum (Italy, 15th century)

Harley MS 3099 Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae and De natura rerum (Flanders, 12th century)

Detail from Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae: Munsterbilsen, 12th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 3099, f. 1v).

Harley MS 3140 Articella (France, c. 1300)

Harley MS 3199 Collection of computistical and musical texts (France or England, 12th-14th century)

Harley MS 3234 Alanus ab Insula, De planctu naturae (Italy, 15th century)

Harley MS 3244 Bestiary (England, 13th century)

A dog with a shepherd, dogs hunting a stag and a rabbit, and a dog identifying a murderer and howling by its dead master, in a bestiary: England, 13th century (London, British Library, MS Harley 3244, f. 45r).

Harley MS 3263 Jean du Temps of Blois, Organon Astronomicon ex hypothesibus Copernici extractum (France, 16th century)

Harley MS 3271 Collection of grammatical and computistical texts (England, 11th century): see The Tribal Hidage Online

Harley MS 3394 Andres de Vega, Fabrica Horologa Universal (Spain, 1627)

Harley MS 3360 Thomas Hobbes, A Minute or first Draught of the Optiques (France, 1646): see Thomas Hobbes on Optics Online

Harley MS 3414 Theophrastus, De historia plantarum (Germany, 15th century)

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25 May 2012

Marvels of the West


Detail of a miniature of the naked bearded-woman of Limerick and the naked man-ox of Wicklow (who is being given a round object by another man), from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223, Royal 13 B. viii, f. 19

The first fully-digitised manuscript from our recent exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination has gone live (huzzah!); please have a look at the stunning images of Royal 13 B. viii now available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Royal 13 B. viii was one of the highlights of the Royal exhibition and the favourite of many visitors (for more details also see the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts record). The manuscript is an anthology of texts about history, topography and marvels, concentrating on Ireland and Wales.  It includes the famous Topographia Hibernica by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223), the only text in the volume illustrated by a series of marginal images.


Detail of a marginal miniature of a leaping salmon in a river in Munster, from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223, Royal 13 B. viii, f. 23

The 'proto-ethnographic' Topographia was the result of Gerald's journey to Ireland with Prince John of England in 1185.  The text contains descriptions of the Irish people, geography and wildlife, along with discussions of various miracles and the so-called wonders of Ireland.  These marvels feature prominently in the marginal images of this manuscript; see for example the leaping salmon of Munster (f. 23, above) or the monstrous bearded woman of Limerick and the man-ox of Wicklow (f. 19, at the top). 


Detail of a marginal miniature of the woman of Connacht embracing a goat, from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223, Royal 13 B. viii, f. 19v

The manuscript is more than a mere description of the 'marvels of the west', however.  Gerald wrote his book as a propaganda tool in support of the English conquest of Ireland, and dedicated it to Henry II of England, who he described as 'our western Alexander'.  Some of the marginal images reflect this slant (and are far beyond any sense of 'political correctness').  On f. 19v a woman of Connacht can be seen in a lustful embrace with a goat (above), whilst on f. 28v an Irish king-to-be is immersing himself in the broth of a slaughtered white mare, with which he has just had sexual intercourse (below).  These and other examples of the purported bestiality and immorality of the Irish people were intended to serve as justification for the planned English invasion of Ireland.


Detail of a marginal miniature of the kingship ritual in Tirconnell: the killing of the white mare, the bath of the king in a stew of mare's meat and eating of the meat by the king's supporters, from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223, Royal 13 B. viii, f. 28v

There is some evidence that this Royal copy of the Topographia Hibernica could have been made in Lincoln, where Gerald spent time in 1196-1198, before finally returning to retire there after 1207.  This manuscript contains some local additions, including a description and painting of a deer with golden teeth, which was allegedly captured in Dunholm Wood (close to Lincoln); it is shown here compared with a similarly golden-toothed fish found at Ulster in Ireland.


Detail of a marginal miniature of a fish with golden teeth found at Carlingford in Ulster, and a deer with golden teeth from Dunholm Wood, from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223, Royal 13 B. viii, f. 16v

You might also like to know that this manuscript is currently on display in the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition (11 May-25 September 2012).

We will be publishing many more Royal manuscripts to the Digitised Manuscripts site in the coming weeks and months; all our new uploads will be announced here.

- Sarah J Biggs

22 May 2012

A Physician's Folding Almanac

A page from a 15th century physician's folding almanac: London, British Library, MS Harley 3812, f. 5v.

When we think about medieval manuscripts, the image that often comes to our mind is one of a codex, typical in form to the modern printed book, bound between hard covers and read by turning its pages one-by-one. But medieval books come in all shapes and sizes, and here, from our Harley Science Project, is another interesting format, the physician's folding almanac.


Harley MS 3812 was made in England around the year 1463 (before Columbus sailed the ocean blue), and was designed for portability. Its leaves are folded and sewn together in a tab at the lower edges, and was clearly intended to be hung at the waist, or carried in a satchel or pocket. The name of its first owner is unknown, alas, but we surmise that he must have been a physician. On f. 5v is found a rather crude drawing of a bloodletting man, for the use of a medieval medical practitioner. One can imagine that the original owner carried this almanac on their travels, bringing it out whenever consulted by their patients. Maybe, if we looked close, we could even find traces of medieval blood ...

The remainder of our Harley Science manuscripts will be published soon on Digitised Manuscripts, and publicised here.

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19 May 2012

Wrestling Mania

Wrestling is pretty unusual among the sports at the Summer Olympics: it has two separate disciplines, Freestyle and Greco-Roman; while Greco-Roman Wrestling is the sole event in which only men compete (women contested Boxing for the first time in 2012). There is a subtle distinction between the two styles. In Greco-Roman Wrestling, holds below the waist are forbidden, resulting in a greater emphasis on throws, since a wrestler cannot attempt to trip their opponent. Freestyle Wrestling, as the name implies, gives the competitors more leeway into how to bring their fellow-contestant to the ground. The ultimate goal of both versions is to pin your opponent to the mat.

A decorated initial with two wrestling men (Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Arundel 157, f. 95v.

Although the name "Greco-Roman" suggests a connection with the Classical past, it's now believed that this form of wrestling was developed by a Napoleonic soldier, Jean Exbrayat (hence another name for the sport, "French Wrestling"). In any case, wrestling is an ages-old pursuit, and not surprisingly it's depicted in many ancient books. Here are some examples for your delectation -- the question is, can you guess whether these are freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestlers?

The wrestling of Hercules and Achelous, in a French translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 17 E. IV, f. 136r.

Image of wrestlers in a copy of Aristotle's Libri naturales (England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Harley 3487, f. 34r. 

And here is perhaps the most famous wrestling match of them all, Jacob and the angel, depicted in two manuscripts from England and Catalonia (the famous Golden Haggadah). Wrestling fans out there -- can you spot any arm drags, bear hugs or headlocks?

Jacob wrestling with the angel (Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century): London, British Library, MS Royal 1 D. X, f. 74v.

Jacob wrestling with an angel, from the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): London, British Library, MS Additional 27210, f. 5r).

Julian Harrison


17 May 2012

Sir Gawain Back in London

The unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is on display again in London, in the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition (11 May-25 September 2012). Made towards the end of the 14th century, the manuscript in question (Cotton MS Nero A. X, ff. 41–130) contains four Middle English poems (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), accompanied by a series of full-page miniatures. The poems are widely acknowledged to be some of the greatest literary survivals from medieval England. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to judge for themselves whether the illuminations are, as described by one critic, "coarsely executed". (In our opinion, they lend to the curiosity of the manuscript.)

Gawain 1

Most recently, this manuscript was on loan to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, for its exhibition The Romance of the Middle Ages. Currently on show in London is perhaps the most famous opening in the volume, with a full-page miniature of the Green Knight at King Arthur's court, faced by the opening page of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Gawain 2

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands explores how British landscapes permeate great literary works, from Chaucer and William Blake to J. G. Ballard and J. K. Rowling. The exhibition has already received some excellent reviews, and you can find out how to purchase tickets here.

14 May 2012

Thomas Hobbes on Optics Online

A drawing of the connection of the eye and the brain, part of Thomas Hobbes's treatise on optics: London, British Library, MS 3360, f. 6r.

The manuscript of Thomas Hobbes's tract, A Minute or first Draught of the Optiques, is now available online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Harley MS 3360 was made in Paris in 1646, as a presentation copy for William Cavendish, marquis of Newcastle (d. 1676), to whom the work is dedicated. This manuscript contains the title-page (f. 1r), dedication to Cavendish (ff. 2r-4r), list of contents (f. 5r-v), and the treatise itself in two parts (ff. 6r-71r, 72v-193r). It entered the Harley library on 7 August 1724, which collection was sold to the nation in 1753 for £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

The title-page of Hobbes's tract: London, British Library, MS Harley 3360, f. 1r.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a philosopher, perhaps best-known for his major treatise on psychology, politics and religion, Leviathan, published in 1651. Hobbes was himself resident in Paris throughout the period 1640-1651, when both the tract on optics and Leviathan were composed. He had been a keen student of optics since at least the 1630s, having been sent in 1637 a copy of René Descartes's Discours de la méthode, which also contained an essay on refraction. Having the entire manuscript of A Minute or first Draught of the Optiques online means that the whole work can be widely consulted for the first time, in the process enlightening Thomas Hobbes' contribution to this discipline.

The digitisation and cataloguing of this manuscript was made possible through the generosity of William and Judith Bollinger, as part of the British Library's Harley Science Project.

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