Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

10 posts from July 2012

30 July 2012

Once More Beneath the Surface - Call for Papers for Kalamazoo 2013

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. 396

It has been very interesting - and extremely gratifying - to hear about the new discoveries and exciting research recently undertaken on items from the British Library's collection of medieval and earlier manuscripts (see here, for example, for Adam Cohen's guest post on Arundel 155, and here for my own work on Parc Abbey Bible, Additional 14788 - 14790).

In this light, we'd like to encourage any researchers interested in manuscript production to have a look at the call for papers for the 2013 Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies recently announced by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence.  The always-excellent RGME is sponsoring and co-sponsoring a total of seven sessions, with three focusing specifically on material culture, methods of production, and technological investigations of illuminated manuscripts.

Within this group will be sessions on medieval writing materials, current issues in Middle English palaeography, and one on the making of medieval manuscripts.  This latter session, which I will be organising, looks to highlight new and ongoing technological research on medieval manuscripts, particularly focusing on new discoveries or interpretations of pigment use.  We are interested in studies from all stages of the research process, including works in progress or experimental techniques; please email me at sejbiggs [at] gmail [dot] com for more details, or see the Call for Papers here.

The RGME will also be offering a session on medieval manuscript collections in North America, in conjunction with King Alfred's Notebook LLC.  Three more, organised with the Societas Magica, have the following focuses: Astrology and Magic; Magic, Material Culture, and Technology; and Water as Symbol, Sign, and Trial: Aquatic Semantics in the Middle Ages.

Please have a look at the CFP, and get in touch with the RGME or myself with any questions.  And also let us know if you are interested in publicising your work on any British Library manuscripts here on the blog; we have a number of guest posts lined up for the future and are always happy to showcase new research.

- Sarah J Biggs

27 July 2012

An Ancient List of Olympic Victors


Over the last few days London has welcomed more than 10,000 athletes from around the world to participate in the 2012 Summer Olympics. At the time of writing, the opening ceremony is just hours away; and during the next weeks many of the spectators will head to the Olympic Park on trains leaving St Pancras station, adjacent to the British Library. But how many of those spectators will realise that among the British Library's collections is a papyrus fragment containing a list of victors at the ancient Olympic Games?

The list is found on the verso of Papyrus 1185, written in the early 3rd century AD, and it includes the names of athletes and the events they won from the 75th to the 78th Olympiads (480 BC-468 BC), and again from the 81st to 83rd Olympiads (456 BC–448 BC). Some of the thirteen events listed will be familiar to modern spectators (boxing, wrestling, sprinting), while others are quite different from the ones we are looking forward to this summer. Wouldn't it be great if chariot racing was reinstated in the programme?! Let's start a petition to introduce the pancration (combined wrestling and boxing) to the modern Games. We guess that Usain Bolt would have been one of the favourites for the stadion had he competed at the ancient Olympiads! 


stadion (192.27 metre sprint)


2 stadia


dolichos (2000 metre)








pancration (combined wrestling & boxing)

παίδων στάδιον

boys’ stadio

παίδων πάλη

boys’ wrestling

παίδων πύξ

boys’ boxing


hoplite (race in armour)


four horse chariot race


courser, horse-riding

On the recto of the papyrus are some money accounts, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The list of Olympian victors on the verso is a fortuitous survival.

24 July 2012

Final Harley Science Manuscripts Published

Pseudo-Dioscorides, Liber medicinae ex herbis femininis (London, British Library, MS Harley 5294, f. 43v).

We are delighted to announce that the remaining manuscripts in our Harley Science Project have now been published to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. All 150 manuscripts in this project have been digitised and recatalogued thanks to the generosity of William and Judith Bollinger. We hope that this resource, part of our ongoing campaign to make our collection items more accessible, will promote new research into the books in question. Many of the texts featured in this project are by authors (such as Aristotle, Bede, Roger Bacon and Thomas Hobbes) who stood at the forefront of antique, medieval and early modern scientific discovery; and we hope sincerely that they would have approved of our mission to make their works more widely available.

Harley 13  Scientific miscellany (England, 13th-16th century)

Harley 524  Collection of sermons and theological tracts, with medical additions (England, 13th century)

Harley 1602  Miscellany including medical treatises, alchemical recipes and charms (England, 14th-17th century)

Harley 2510  Miscellany of texts on rhetoric, astrology and mathematics (Italy and France, 12th-13th century)

Harley 2686  Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (France, 9th century)

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (London, British Library, MS Harley 2686, f. 5r).

Harley 3334  Rolandus Capellutus Parmensis, De chirurgia (England, 14th century)

Harley 3353  Miscellany relating to medicine, alchemy and mathematics (England, 13th-14th century)

Harley 3698  Bernardus de Gordonio, Practica dicta Lilium medicine (France, 14th century)

Bernardus de Gordonio, Practica dicta Lilium medicine (London, British Library, MS Harley 3698, f. 1r).

Harley 3744  Avicenna, Canon Medicinae (Italy and Germany?, 14th-15th century)

Harley 3745  Medical miscellany (France, 14th century)

Harley 3748  Galen, Opera (France or Italy, 14th-15th century)

Harley 3757  Avicenna, Canon Medicinae (Italy, 14th-15th century)

Harley 3799  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 1 (France, 1475)

Harley 3800  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 4 (France, 1475)

Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae (London, British Library, MS Harley 3800, f. 1r).

Harley 3801  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 2 (France, 1475)

Harley 3802  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 3 (France, 1475)

Harley 3803  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 5 (France, 1475)

Harley 3804  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 6 (France, 1475)

Harley 3805  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 7 (France, 1475)

Harley 3806  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 8 (France, 1475)

Harley 3807  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 9 (France, 1475)

Harley 3808  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 10 (France, 1475)

Harley 3809  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, volume 11 (France, 1475)

Harley 3812  Physician's folding almanac (England, c. 1463)

Physician's folding almanac (London, British Library, MS. Harley 3812, f. 1r).

Harley 3814A  Astronomical and astrological miscellany (France and England, 13th-14th century)

Harley 3814B  Prayer book (Italy, 15th century)

Harley 3843  Computistical miscellany including texts relating to medicine (England, 15th century)

Harley 3849  Medical miscellany (Germany and France, 13th century)

Harley 3892  Miscellaneous texts on rhetoric, grammar, geometry and divination (Italy, 1400-1454)

Harley 3915  Collection of chemical, alchemical and medical recipes, and texts on the techniques and technology of various arts (Germany, 1200-1444)

Recipes for making ink (London, British Library, MS Harley 3915, f. 148v).

Harley 3969  Works on history, natural history and rhetoric (England, 14th century)

Harley 4114  Jacques Despars, Commentary on Avicenna, Canon Medicinae (France, 1486)

Harley 4235  Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (England, 1640)

Harley 4236  Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (England, 1640)

Harley 4241  Aristotle, Metaphysica (Germany, c. 1450-1464)

Harley 4346  Medical miscellany (Germany, 12th century)

Harley 4347  The Aphorisms of Hippocrates and other maxims (Ireland, 16th century)

Harley 4350  Astronomical miscellany (France, 13th century)

Robert Grosseteste, De sphera (London, British Library, MS Harley 4350, f. 4r).

Harley 4361  Livre de Sydrac (Italy or France, 13th century)

Harley 4486  A treatise on alchemy and medicine, and the Livre de Sydrac (France? and England, 1350-1631)

Harley 4735  Commentary on Aristotle, Physica; Nicolaus Lakmann, Formalitates (England, 15th century)

Harley 4924  Thomas Osborne, Treatise on arithmetic (England, 1601-1602)

Harley 4970  Aristotle, De animalibus (England, 13th century)

Harley 4973  Jordanus de Nemore, De elementis arismetica artis (France or England, 13th century)

Harley 4977  Medical compendium (France or England, 12th century)

Harley 4982  Constantinus Africanus, Theorica Pantegni (France, 13th-14th century)

Harley 4983  Nicolaus Salernitanus, Antidotarium (France, 13th century)

Harley 4986  Pharmacopeial compilation (Germany, 11th-12th century)

Harley 5098  Constantinus Africanus, Theorica Pantegni (France, 13th century)

Harley 5201  Astrological miscellany (England and Germany, 1150-1524)

Harley 5228  Medical miscellany (England, 12th-13th century)

Harley 5266  Euclid, Elements (Italy, 14th century)

Euclid, Elements (London, British Library, MS Harley 5266, f. 15r).

Harley 5294  Pharmacopeial compilation (England, 12th century)

Harley 5311  Physician's folding almanac (England, c. 1406)

Harley 5325  Helperic of Auxerre, Computus (France or England, 11th-12th century)

Harley 5402  Astrological miscellany (Italy, 12th-14th century)

Harley 5404  Euclid, Elementa (France, 14th century)

Harley 5425  Ars Commentata (France, 13th century)

Harley 5771  Samuel Morland, Élévation des eaux par toute sorte de machines reduite à la mesure, au poids, à la balance (France, 1683)

Harley 6001  Thomas Harriot, Mathematical notes (England, 1621-1654)

Thomas Harriot, Mathematical notes (London, British Library, MS Harley 6001, f. 1r).

Harley 6002  Thomas Harriot, Mathematical notes (England, 1621-1654)

Harley 6046  Commentaries on works of Aristotle and Johannes de Sacro Bosco (?Netherlands, 1605-1606)

Harley 6083  Charles Cavendish, Mathematical papers (England, 1621-1654)

Harley 6258B  Medical miscellany (England, 12th century)

Harley 6331  Works of Aristotle (Italy, 14th century)

Harley 6398  Boke of Marchalsi (England, 15th century)

Boke of Marchalsi (London, British Library, MS Harley 6398, f. 1r).

Harley 6485  The Rosie Crucian Secrets attributed to John Dee (England, 1713)

Harley 6858  Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (England, 17th century)

Harley 6878  Astronomical and astrological texts (France, 17th century)

Harley 7656  Mathematical and philosophical fragments (England, France and Italy, 13th-15th century)

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19 July 2012

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book Goes Online


Detail of a miniature of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI of England, and surrounded by their court, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 2v

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Royal MS 15 E. vi) is, as Dr Scot McKendrick put it, 'one of the most remarkable manuscripts to have been preserved in the Old Royal library'.  It is certainly the subject of many reader queries and curatorial enquiries, and judging by our recent correspondence, its upload to the Digitised Manuscripts website has been eagerly anticipated.

The manuscript is a unique collection of fifteen texts in French, incorporating chansons de geste, chivalric romances, and treatises on warfare and chivalry, concluding with the Statutes of the Order of the Garter (and we hope to have a longer post at a later point with much more detail about this extraordinary textual compilation).

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book is arguably best known for the two images that serve as a frontispiece to the volume.  On f. 2v (see above for a detail) is a scene of the manuscript being presented to Margaret of Anjou (b. 1430 - d. 1482) by John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury (d. 1453).  The manuscript was a gift from Talbot to Margaret, in honour of her betrothal to Henry VI (r. 1422 - 1461).  In the miniature Margaret is shown enthroned with Henry, and crowned as the Queen of England, but it is likely that Talbot presented her with the manuscript prior to her journey to England to marry the king.  The complex diagram on the facing folio (f. 3r, below) lays out Henry VI's genealogical claim to the throne of France through his descent from St Louis IX (r. 1226 - 1270); Henry can be seen in the lower central roundel.



Miniature of the genealogical table of the descendants of St Louis IX in the form of a fleur-de-lys, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 3r


Although the texts are varied, they were evidently carefully selected by the manuscript's patron, and the programme of illumination throughout was led by a single artist, who has come to be called the Talbot Master in honour of this volume. We hope you enjoy just a few of the many gorgeous miniatures below, and please be sure to check out the complete manuscript online here.



Miniature of the city of Babylon with Nectanebus enthroned in his palace, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 4v



Miniatures of the following: first column: Alexander the Great encountering blemmyae; Alexander encountering horse-like creatures; second column: Alexander and the burial of Bucephalus; Alexander with ill people and caladrius birds; Alexander encountering a two-headed serpent, elephants, and other beasts, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 21v



Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne at table, and Aymon's sons on the magical horse, Bayard, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 155r



Detail of a miniature of the Chapter of the Garter, with a king and knights gathered around an altar surmounted by George and the Dragon, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 439r

- Sarah J Biggs

16 July 2012

Jan van Naaldwijk’s Chronicles of Holland

Regular readers of this blog may recall that the British Library publishes its own electronic journal, which regularly features discussions of medieval and early modern manuscripts. A recent addition to the Electronic British Library Journal (eBLJ) is Sjoerd Levelt's article, The Manuscripts of Jan van Naaldwijk's Chronicles of Holland, Cotton MSS. Vitellius F. XV and Tiberius C. IV, which can be viewed online for free.




The autograph manuscripts of two chronicles of Holland by Jan van Naaldwijk, the son of a Dutch nobleman, and written between 1513 and c. 1520, are now housed at the British Library (where they are classified as Cotton MSS. Vitellius F. XV and Tiberius C. IV). Sjoerd Levelt's investigation of the manuscripts demonstrates that they came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton through the hands of Emanuel van Meteren. His paper also describes a number of irregularities in the current state of Cotton Vitellius F. XV, and provides a reconstruction of its original shape.

The electronic British Library Journal homepage can be found here, and the editor always welcomes new contributions, especially those which throw new light on British Library manuscripts.

12 July 2012

How Did We Choose Our Harley Science Manuscripts?

The Emperor Charlemagne kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow, in Giovanni Cadamosto's illustrated herbal. The plant is called 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised Charlemagne to eat it in order to be purged of poison (London, British Library, MS Harley 3736, f. 20r).

When selecting which Harley science manuscripts to digitise, we decided to interpret the word "scientific" in the broadest terms. One of our goals has been to make as wide a range of material available to as many users as possible, on the grounds that researchers accessing our descriptions and images will be working in different fields. You may have noticed that we have defined "science" to incorporate astrology, astronomy, botany, the computus, mathematics, natural history and veterinary medicine, among other topics. We hope that our selection will cater to most people's tastes.

Below you will find a list of recent additions to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. The manuscripts in question include the works of Alanus ab Insula, Albertus Magnus, Alcuin, Alexander Neckham, Giovanni Cadamosto, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, and date from the ninth century to the sixteenth. We shall shortly update you on more items digitised as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley 1  Miscellaneous treatises on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and geometry (England, 13th-14th century)

Harley 6  Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, and Alexander Neckam, Corrogationes Promethei (England or France, 13th century)

Harley 55  Anglo-Saxon miscellany including medical remedies and laws (England, 11th century)

The opening page of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 1r).

Harley 57  Albertus Magnus, De mineralibus et lapidibus (Italy, 14th century)

Harley 80  Collection of texts on astronomy, optics, astrology and stones (England, 13th-15th century)

Harley 208  Letters of Alcuin and Dungal (France, 9th century)

Harley 273  Compilation of religious and secular texts including charms relating to wounds, bloodletting, fever, cancer, gout, childbirth and toothache (England, 14th century)

Harley 585  Medical miscellany (England, 10th century-11th century)

Harley 625  Collection of astronomical and mathematical treatises and tables (England, 1350-1569)

Harley 866  Miscellaneous texts on rhetoric, mathematics and other sciences (England, c 1390-c 1410)

Alanus ab Insula (Alain de Lille), De planctu naturae (London, British Library, MS Harley 866, f. 17r).

Harley 941  Miscellany including treatises relating to astrology, magic, astronomy and geography (England, 15th century)

Harley 978  Collection of poems and musical, calendrical and medical texts (England, 13th century)

Harley 3719  Collection of astronomical, calendrical, medical and philosophical texts (England, 13th-16th century)

Harley 3734  Toledan tables (Spain, 13th-15th century)

Three circular diagrams, the central of which is a table in red and black, likely for determining the date of Easter. The lower diagram appears unfinished, while the upper circle contains a line drawing in brown of two Franciscan friars and an angel (London, British Library, MS Harley 3734, f. 1v).

Harley 3735  Treatises on astronomy and the computus (England, 1264-1293)

Harley 3736  Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, with treatises on food, poisons and remedies, and the properties of stones (Italy or Germany, 16th century)

Harley 3737  Alexander Neckham, De naturis rerum (England, 12th century)

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09 July 2012

Sport on the Sea (and River)


Detail of a miniature of Louis IX sailing off on his second crusade, from the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France (Paris), after 1332 and before 1350, Royal 16 G. vi, f. 437v


Sailing and rowing are among the oldest of Olympic events; both have been part of the Games from the beginning of the modern summer Olympics.  The origins of these sports, of course, are much older, and like archery, reach back to a time when they were vital aspects of warfare, as well as necessities for transportation, trade, and exploration.

The images in the British Library's illuminated manuscript collection reflect these ancient uses. Many miniatures of ships show them full of soldiers, heading for war or conquest (as above, depicting Louis IX and his army heading off on his second crusade), or ferrying pilgrims, saints, or explorers (see below, for an historiated initial of Dante setting sail for Purgatory).


Yates Thompson 36, f. 65 c13642-30a

Detail of an historiated initial 'P' of Dante setting sail for Purgatory, by Priamo della Quercia, from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany or Siena?), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson 36, f. 65


Competitors in the London 2012 sailing events - which was called yachting until 1996 - will take to the open waters at Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour in Dorset, in a carefully designed venue.  These events will run from 29 July to 11 August, and one would imagine that today's Olympic sailors won't need to be concerned about encountering any of the medieval nautical hazards detailed in our manuscripts (two of which can be seen below).



Miniature of a whale and a sailing boat, from a Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley 4751, f. 69


The first miniature comes from a bestiary (or book of beasts) in an entry about whales.  According to the text, whales were so large that ships occasionally would mistake one for an island, and land on its back.  As soon as the crew built a fire, however, the whale would awaken and dive to the depths; this miniature shows the moment when the whale descends, and the unready (and, strangely, partly unclothed) crew are scrambling with their sails and rigging.  Below is an image of another 'common' maritime danger - a siren.  In this scene, she has seized hold of a ship and collapsed its mast; one crewman tries to close his ears to her song while another grabs hold of an oar to effect an escape.


Harley 4751, f. 47v E043089

Detail of a miniature of a siren, from a Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley 4751, f. 47v

Medieval manuscripts often show rowers in the context of river crossings and trade (when their skills were not necessary to escape a destructive siren).  One of the most famous rivers in the Middle Ages was a mythical one - the river Acheron which was said to form the borders of Hell.  According to myth, Charon was the ferryman designated to carry souls across to perdition and depictions of him doing so were common (see below).


Yates Thompson 36 f. 6 c13641-11a

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil being rowed by Charon across the river Acheron, by Priamo della Quercia, from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany or Siena?), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson 36, f. 6


2012 Olympic rowing events will take place in Eton Dorney, Buckinghamshire, near the River Thames, so we were particularly pleased to come across two images of medieval rowers on England's most famous river.  Both of these are from a 15th century version of John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, and show helpful rivermen returning a fallen infant to its mother, and rescuing a boy who has fallen from London Bridge.



Detail of a miniature of a riverman returning a fallen infant to its mother, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), between 1461 and c. 1475, Yates Thompson 47, f. 97


Detail of a miniature of a boy, fallen from London Bridge after being pushed by cattle, being rescued by rivermen on the Thames, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), between 1461 and c. 1475, Yates Thompson 47, f. 94v


06 July 2012

250,000 Page Views: Tell Us Your Favourite Post

Keen readers of this blog may recall that we received our 100,000th page view in January 2012. Less than six months later, we're delighted to report that the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog has now been viewed over 250,000 times! We'd like to take this opportunity to thank our readers for sharing our love of the past, for commenting on our activities, and for spreading the news about the British Library's collections.


In the coming weeks we plan to tell you more about our various digitisation projects, and there will doubtless be further posts on the Olympics. We also intend to blog about ongoing research on manuscripts at the British Library, as carried out by our readers (see the entry on Hidden Inscriptions in Arundel 155). If you wish to share your research in this way, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

So, to celebrate reaching 250,000 page views, we thought that we'd ask our loyal readers what has been their favourite post. Send us your comments: there may even be a small prize for the best contribution, as judged by an international panel (us). You can choose from the following list, as nominated by the blog's editors, or make your own suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you -- and please keep your feedback coming, it's what makes writing this blog so enjoyable.

The Coronation of Charles I: A Salutary Tale

Erasing (Thomas) Becket

C13568-92 Stowe 22 f. 25

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Perugino at the Alte Pinakothek


The Royal Opening

Medieval Booze Cruise

Seal of Approval: A Medieval Mystery

Matrix BL Together

Genealogy of a Royal Bastard

Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts Online

C11375-03 Harley 5710, f. 136

Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library

Bows and Arrows

St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation

Monkeys in the Margins

C11404-06a Add 18851 f. 13 detail

Wrestling Mania