Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from June 2012

30 June 2012

Listen to Our Podcasts: The St Cuthbert Gospel and Magna Carta

Did you know that you can listen to podcasts on the British Library's website? Among those currently available are two that relate to some of our most significant medieval manuscripts, namely the St Cuthbert Gospel and Magna Carta, recorded respectively in 2012 and 2008. All of our podcasts are also available to download.


In The St Cuthbert Gospel: The Story of a Book, introduced by British Library curator Dr Claire Breay, Simon Keynes (Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Cambridge) and Michael Sadgrove (Dean of Durham Cathedral) explain why the 7th-century St Cuthbert Gospel is one of the world's most remarkable books (MP3 file, 1 hour 39 minutes 21 seconds, 39.8 MB).

In Magna Carta, Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) talks about the background and significance of this document, in the process puncturing a few of the myths that have risen around it (MP3 file, 1 hour 9 minutes, 27.44 MB).

We hope that you enjoy listening to these podcasts, whether you were able to attend the original events at the British Library in London or are a new listener.

27 June 2012

Books of History, War and Mystery: More Royal Manuscripts Go Online

<span style="font-size: 8pt;" _mce_style="font-size: 8pt;">Initial 'I'(nitium) with interlace decoration and display script in gold, framed by a 'Winchester style' foliate border with two medalliions with saints holding books (Evangelists?) at the beginning of Mark, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), c. 1020,&nbsp; <a href=";ref=Royal_MS_1_d_ix" _mce_href=";ref=Royal_MS_1_d_ix" target="_blank" title="Royal MS 1 D. ix">Royal 1 D. ix</a><em>&nbsp;</em>, f. 45r</span>

We have been pleased to hear from so many scholars and manuscript aficionados regarding our Royal digitisation project, and our work to make these treasures available online continues apace.  We've finished another upload to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, with a (we hope) charmingly diverse group of Royals.  These manuscripts range in date from c. 1020 to c. 1517, and include an early English Gospel book, a number of works on Greek and Roman history, a treatise on how to be a prince, a humanistic masterpiece, and the intriguingly arcane Hieroglyphica

The manuscripts are as follows:

Royal 1 C. vii        The Rochester Bible, England (Rochester), second quarter of the 12th century

Royal 1 D. ix         The Cnut Gospels, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), c. 1020 (please see an earlier post on this manuscript here)                     

Royal 12 C. iii        Filippo Alberici, Hieroglyphica and Emblematic Inscriptions, France (Paris), c. 1507


<span style="font-size: 8pt;" _mce_style="font-size: 8pt;">Full-page miniature of various emblems, including a sword, a crown, a wheel, and a serpent, from Filippo Alberici's Hierogyphica and Emblematic Inscriptions, France (Paris), c. 1507, <a href="" _mce_href="" target="_blank" title="Royal MS 12 C. iii">Royal 12 C. iii</a>, f. 22r</span>


Royal 12 C. viii      Pandolfo Collenuccio, Apologues, Italy (Rome and Florence), c. 1509 - c. 1517

Royal 15 D. i         Bible Historiale, part 4 (Bible Historiale of Edward IV), Netherlands (Bruges), 1470 and c. 1479

Royal 16 G. viii      Bellum Gallicum (Les Commentaires de Cesar), France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476

Royal 17 D. vi        Thomas Hoccleve, The Regement of Princes, England, second quarter of the 15th century

Royal 18 D. ii        John Lydgate, Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, England (London?), c. 1457 - 1460

Royal 19 C. iv       Le Songe du Vergier, France (Paris), 1378


<span style="font-size: 8pt;" _mce_style="font-size: 8pt;">Frontispiece with a full border in colours and gold, an historiated initial with a portrait of Pandolfo Collenuccio, and the arms of Henry VIII, from Pandolfo Collenuccio's Apologues, Italy (Rome and Florence), c. 1509 - c. 1517, <a href=";ref=Royal_MS_12_c_viii" _mce_href=";ref=Royal_MS_12_c_viii" target="_blank" title="Royal MS 12 C. viii">Royal 12 C. viii</a>, f. 4r</span>


25 June 2012

Sumer Is Icumen In

A page from a 13th-century miscellany, showing the Middle English canon 'Sumer is icumen in'.

"Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!" (Summer has come in, Loudly sing, Cuckoo!), Harley MS 978, f. 11v

One of the world's most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978, is now available in full online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Written in 13th-century England, and belonging at one stage to the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map plus, most importantly to musicologists, the Middle English canon "Sumer is icumen in", written in square notation on a five-line red stave. The manuscript also contains medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs, and for that reason was included in our Harley Science Project.

"Sumer is icumen in" is found on f. 11v of Harley MS 978. Here are the lyrics in full with a translation into modern English.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!


Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don't ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!


The logo of the British Library's Harley Science project.

21 June 2012

Chaste, Obedient and Humble: Hidden Inscriptions in Arundel 155

Among the many great Anglo-Saxon treasures in the British Library is Arundel MS 155, written by a scribe named Eadui Basan at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably between 1012 and 1023. It contains the 150 psalms and other texts used by medieval Benedictine monks, but what makes the book remarkable is its sumptuous decoration. This includes a number of initials lavishly executed in gold and in rich pigments of blue, green, red and pink. On folios 12, 53 and 93, these initials for the beginning of Psalms 1, 51 and 101 are situated within full-page frames with exquisite acanthus decoration in delicately coloured leaves that intertwine around the golden borders.

The opening of Psalm 1 in London, British Library, MS Arundel 155, f. 12r.

Many medieval Psalters from the British Isles also included full-page pictures before the major divisions of the Psalms, and Arundel 155 may once have had such illustrations. Now there is only a single full-page illumination in the manuscript, which appears at the end of the psalms on folio 133 recto. This image has attracted the attention of many scholars because it contains a depiction of St Benedict, considered the founder of medieval monasticism. The saint (labelled ‘St Benedict  Father and Leader of Monks’ on his halo) sits enthroned under an arch at the left while a group of monks under a second arch approach him from the right. The monk closest to the saint holds—indeed, seems to be struggling under the weight of—a large book that is open to reveal the beginning of the Rule written by Benedict as a guide for every aspect of a monk’s life. Similarly, a figure at the bottom of the page kneels before Benedict and grasps his feet in a dramatic gesture of humility and obedience.

Miniature of St Benedict in London, British Library, MS Arundel 155, f. 133r.

Numerous details throughout the image communicate the status of Benedict, his relationship to God (indicated by the Hand of God emerging from the clouds above) and his relationship to the monks.  Many of these were explicated by the late Robert Deshman in an essay that explored how Benedict also was conceived as a king (notice his diadem and gold clothes) and, by extension, how such Anglo-Saxon kings as Edgar were thought of as monastic leaders like Benedict (see Deshman, ‘Benedictus Monarcha et Monachus: Early Medieval Ruler Theology and the Anglo-Saxon Reform’ in Eye and Mind: Collected Essays in Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval Art, ed. Adam S. Cohen [Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010], pp. 104–36).

Detail of London, British Library, MS Arundel 155, f. 133r.

During a research trip in 2011 to investigate further the art of the Anglo-Saxon monastic movement, I realized that examining the image very closely and in just the right light revealed a set of previously unnoticed inscriptions on the page. Words are written on three of the four golden lobes on Benedict’s tunic in very pale pink ink. Thanks to the efforts of the British Library’s Conservation Scientists, a multispectral photograph can make visible what previous reproductions could not.

When I showed this picture during a lecture at the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, there were audible gasps from the crowd. ‘Castus’, ‘Obediens’ and ‘Humilis’ can be translated as ‘Chaste’, ‘Obedient’ and ‘Humble’ and represent three core monastic virtues. What is most remarkable, however, is the way the labels correspond to Benedict’s body: ‘chaste’ is on the lobe above his groin, while ‘obedient’ and ‘humble’ are on his knees, a graphic reminder of the kneeling performed daily by monks and modelled by the figure at the bottom of the page (probably the abbot). Many questions still remain—Why do these lobes take the form they do? Why is the fourth one blank?—but with this discovery we can better appreciate how Anglo-Saxon images not only could communicate complex theological iconography, but also evoke the bodily aspects of monastic practice.

Arundel 155 copy

Multi-spectral image of London, British Library, MS Arundel 155, f. 133r.

Adam S. Cohen, Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto

19 June 2012

Crowns, Romances, and Chronicles Aplenty: New Royal Manuscripts Online

  Royal 11 E. xi f. 1 c13493-31 

Allegorical miniature of the Tudor rose, incorporating various emblems associated with Henry VIII, from Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp?), 1516, Royal 11 E. xi, f. 2r


We are very happy to announce that the first batch of fully-digitised Royal manuscript has gone live on the Digitised Manuscripts site.  This group includes a number of the best-known - and certainly best-loved - manuscripts in the British Library's collections (and a few of them are so justly famous that we've already highlighted them on this blog; please see the list below for links to these specific posts).



Detail of a miniature of Clovis defeating the Alemanni, after praying to Christ for vixtory, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, France (Paris), between 1332 - 1350, Royal 16 G. vi, f. 15r


The manuscripts are as follows:

Cotton Tiberius B. viii, ff. 35-80

Coronation Book of Charles V, France (Paris), 1365

(for more details, please see our recent 'Documentary' of a Royal Coronation)

Harley 1498

Quadripartite Indenture for Henry VIII’s Chapel (The Harley Indenture), England (London), 1504

(also this post about the Indenture)

Royal 11 E. xi

Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp?), 1516

Royal 13 B. viii

Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223

(and our recent Marvels of the West)

Royal 14 B. v

Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England, last quarter of the 13th century

Royal 14 B. vi

Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England, c. 1300

(this roll featured in Genealogy of a Royal Bastard)

Royal 14 E. iii

Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), first quarter of the 14th century

(yet another highlighted manuscript; see Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail)

Royal 14 E. iv

Jean de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre, France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 – c. 1480

Royal 16 G. vi

Grandes Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France (Paris), between 1332 – 1350

Royal 18 E. ii

Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), last quarter of the 15th century (before 1483)

Royal 19 B. xiii

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320 – c. 1340

More Royal manuscripts are going online all the time; we will continue to update you on this blog, and as always, your comments are most welcome.


Detail of a miniature of two knights (Peter Courtenay and de Clary) jousting on horseback, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), last quarter of the 15th century (before 1483), Royal 18 E. ii, f. 24v


Detail from the full foliate border of a bird pecking the eyes of a man dressed as a fool, by the Master of the White Inscriptions, from Jean de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre, France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 – c.1480, Royal 14 E. iv, f. 299r

15 June 2012

Magna Carta's 797th Birthday!

How many people will wake up on the morning of 15th June and say to themselves, "Gosh, it's only 797 years since Magna Carta was first issued"? If you're one of those few, congratulate yourself on having studied too much medieval history! If not, then you didn't already know that on 15 June 1215, in the meadow at Runnymede, King John of England (1199-1215), before a gathering of barons and clerics, issued the charter of customs and liberties which is now called conventionally "Magna Carta".

Coloured drawing of King John in Sir Thomas Holme's Book of Arms: England, c. 1445-1450 (London, British Library, MS. Harley 4205, f. 4r).

Magna Carta has attained worldwide status, on account of some of its clauses protecting the rights of the individual, most notably "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." Few people realise that the original charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III on 24 August 1215, barely 10 weeks after it had been issued; but a revised version was published in 1216 in the name of King Henry III (1216-1272), and following further revisions Magna Carta was entered onto the Statute Roll in 1297.

At the British Library we are already gearing up to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015. Magna Carta will form the centrepiece of our major exhibition in that year, for which we already have funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work with Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) and others. In the coming months and years we'll be telling you more about this exciting work, and our plans for the future. And it's all down to those events in an English meadow beside the River Thames, 797 years ago.

Don't forget that you can view Magna Carta on our dedicated webpages.

12 June 2012

Royal Workshop Judged "A Royal Success"

Many thanks to those who joined us for our Royal Manuscripts Workshop on 6 June, hosted by the University of Durham. It was not only an enjoyable event but also a productive one, and we are especially grateful to Professor Richard Gameson for working with us to make it all happen.


During the first part of the workshop, Dr Joanna Fronska gave everyone a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process of digitising an entire manuscript here at the British Library. While leading us through all the stages involved, Dr Fronska highlighted both the benefits of and the areas for potential improvement to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We are going to write a separate post about the feedback we received after Joanna’s talk.

During the second part of our workshop, we were very fortunate to hear fine papers by a number of students who addressed the theme of ‘use’ and the royal manuscript. Roseanne Henderson and Jessica Lenihan tackled the somewhat unloved (but newly dubbed!) ‘Royal Aethelstan Gospels’. Both speakers drew our attention to the practical value of this manuscript for religious study, citing its highly accurate canon tables. In addition, they made the provocative point that, because such quotidian manuscripts survive in smaller numbers (though they once outnumbered the more glamorous examples preserved today), they are that much more precious for their rarity.

In the second paper, presented jointly by Clea Hodgson and Natalie Rimmer, the speakers discussed the New Minster Charter as an object intended to confirm religious reform and to promote the ideals that such reforms implemented. In a similar vein, Sarah Carter addressed the ways in which the Grimbald Gospels exemplify the aims of educational reforms made in the time of its production.

Other papers centred on the political or social uses of manuscripts. Emily Barrett, presenting a co-authored paper by herself and Verity Webster, focused on the New Minster Liber Vitae. This manuscript features a depiction of King Cnut and Queen Emma, intended to emphasise the close relationship between New Minster and its royal patrons. In another paper, Caitlin Johnson and Robert Smith examined the reconciliation between humble piety and self-promotion on display in the Bedford Hours.

King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae (London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r).

Two papers focused on the degree of personalisation in books of hours, often the most highly personalised books of the Middle Ages. Carla Haughey cast a sensitive eye over the Hours of Catherine of France, wondering the level of her involvement in its production: while the manuscript appears to have been in frequent use, the illuminations lack representations of Catherine herself or any perceptibly personal touches. In contrast, the Shaftesbury Psalter, as addressed by Holly Beckwith, places the female patron of the book in a prominent position, kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child. It is the oldest manuscript in the British Library identifiably made for a woman, and we are pleased to report that the recent research of Susan Peters has made a strong case for the identification of this woman as Emma, the Abbess of Shaftesbury during the middle of the 12th century.

Finally, Roger Middleton, Lecturer Emeritus from the Department of French Literature at the University of Nottingham, gave us a wonderful live display of the new research capabilities of Digitised Manuscripts. Zooming in on a page to an extremely high level of magnification, he demonstrated his fascinating findings relating to catchwords in the manuscript, trimmed away but for their ascenders. What once may have appeared mere squiggles on a manuscript page are now invaluable pieces of evidence of a manuscript’s production!

One of the attendees commented, "I came because I was interested in the topic and because I have seen the exhibit. This digitization project is a great idea ... thank you for coming to Durham, it was a fascinating workshop."

09 June 2012

Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail

The most beautiful Arthurian manuscript from the Royal collection, recently displayed in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, is now online on our Digitised Manuscripts site (click here for the fully digitised version of Royal 14 E. iii, and the entry in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

Royal_ms_14_e_iii_f133v detailDetail of a miniature of Sir Galahad and his companions on the Quest for the Holy Grail, approaching a castle which is destroyed by lightning (Part 2, Queste del Saint Graal): France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315-1325 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. iii, f. 133v).

All the manuscript's vibrant borders and its 116 gilded images can be viewed ‘up-close and personal’ on Digitised Manuscripts. The French text, written in a fine 14th-century Gothic bookscript, includes those parts of the Lancelot-Grail epic with predominantly Christian themes – the Holy Grail legend and the destruction of Arthur’s court by a combination of human frailty and evil. The more frivolous adventures of Lancelot and the story of Merlin are not included.

Royal 14 E. iii is a very large book, almost half a metre tall, with three columns of writing per page. It was produced in a workshop in the Franco-Flemish border region, possibly in Tournai or Saint-Omer, for an unknown aristocratic patron. The text and images are designed not only to educate the reader in chivalric and Christian values, but to make the lessons entertaining. The first page is dominated by two religious images with a backdrop of altars and spires. But a closer look at the borders reveals all manner of strange beings involved in a variety of distinctly non-religious activities: a knight jousting with a hybrid creature with a human head, dragon’s wings, hooves and a tail; two strange hairy creatures in capes locked in some kind of embrace; and rabbits and musicians capering along the edges of the text.

Royal_ms_14_e_iii_f003rMiniature of the author as a hermit prostrating himself before the altar with a chalice, the Manus Dei blessing him, a historiated initial 'C'(hil) of a young man with a dog, at the beginning of the text, and a miniature of a hermit speaking with God, following the rubric, 'Ensi que dieus eu une nue parole an hermite qui est devant son autel'; with a partial border containing two angels and the Virgin with Child, a tournament scene with knights and musicians, a hunting scene, animals and hybrids (Part 1: Estoire del Saint Graal): France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315-1325 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. iii, f. 3r).

Anyone who has attempted to read the entire Lancelot-Grail epic with its complex structure of interwoven episodes will be able to sympathise with the medieval audience who needed light relief from time to time!

The three parts of the Lancelot-Grail legend in this manuscript are:

Estoire del Saint Graal (The Story of the Holy Grail): the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood, how it was brought to England by his descendants, and the origin of the Round Table.

Royal_ms_14_e_iii_f086r detailDetail of a miniature of Joseph of Arimathea on his deathbed, entrusting the Grail to Alain, (Part 1: Estoire del Saint Graal): France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315-1325 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. iii, f. 86r).

Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail): the adventures of Perceval, Galahad and the knights of the Round Table as they seek the Holy Grail. The quest is completed by Galahad, the purest knight, son of Lancelot.

Mort Artu (The Death of Arthur): this part tells of Lancelot’s love for Guinevere and his willingness to risk everything in her defence. This manuscript breaks off just as the armies of Lancelot and King Arthur are preparing for the final battle, which will result in Arthur’s death and the destruction of the court at Camelot.

Royal_ms_14_e_iii_f156v detailDetail of a miniature of Sir Lancelot fighting Sir Mados to defend the honour of Guinevere, watched by Arthur, Guinevere, and the court, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315-1325 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. iii, f. 156v).

For information on other Arthurian manuscripts held in the British Library collections, including a full set of the entire Lancelot-Grail legend produced in the same workshop as this one (Additional MSS 10292, 10293 and 10294), see the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and associated virtual exhibition.

Royal 20 D. iv, another exceptional manuscript from the Royal collection, also containing the Lancelot du Lac, will be digitised later this year.

- Chantry Westwell