Medieval manuscripts blog

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12 posts from August 2012

30 August 2012

The Art of Chivalry: The Texts of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book


Detail of a miniature of the storming of Corunna by Broadas, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 207r


The stunning images in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Royal MS 15 E. vi) are not the only treasure hidden between its covers (see our earlier post about the manuscript). Its contents are a unique collection of fifteen texts in French, compiled for a very important patron, the future Queen of England. Their subjects range from history to romance to military strategy - the common theme throughout is the art of chivalry. This was a fitting subject for a military commander such as John Talbot, the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who commissioned the work and presented it to Margaret of Anjou, future wife of Henry VI, probably on her arrival in Rouen in March 1445 on her way to England. Whether or not the young Margaret found the military manuals and statutes of the Order of the Garter as entertaining as the tales of Alexander and the romance of the Swan Knight, this was certainly a wedding gift to be treasured and passed on to future generations. Sadly, her only son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, but this manuscript was certainly in the Royal library in the reign of Charles II, two centuries later, and remained in the Royal collection until its donation to the British Museum (now, of course, the British Library).

Stories of heroes and heroines of the past, both real and imaginary, in the form of chansons de geste (troubadour’s songs) and chivalric romances, fill two thirds of the volume. These are followed by more didactic texts in the form of chronicles, instructional manuals and statutes. Each text begins on a new folio in a separate gathering, and were all joined together in a single volume, with a list of contents on the verso of the first folio.

Two of the greatest heroes of the past are the subject of the first six texts in the collection:



Detail of a miniature of Alexander encountering blemmyae, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 21v


Alexander the Great

Le Livre de la Conqueste du Roy Alexandre is a French translation of the legend of Alexander, in which he is portrayed as the ultimate hero who conquers the known world, does battle with flying dragons, meets Amazonian women and horned men, and is lowered into the sea in a cask. Included here are tales of his childhood and legendary education by Aristotle, the murder of his mother, Olympias, and details of his successors. There are 81 colourful miniatures illustrating Alexander’s legendary exploits. The one above shows him meeting the Blemmyae, men-monsters with their heads in their chests.



Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne and four kings, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 25r



The next five tales are set in the time of Charlemagne, the great military hero and Holy Roman emperor, whose reign provides the background to a huge epic cycle involving a plethora of subsidiary characters. The first four texts are in the form of chansons de geste and the fifth is a prose romance.

Simon de Pouille relates the events in the war between Charlemagne and Christian Jerusalem on the one side and Jonas of Babylon, on the other. Simon, one of the emperor’s companions, is sent as an envoy to the Saracen leader, a task fraught with difficulties.

Aspremont tells of Charlemagne’s campaigns in Italy. Aspremont is one of the peaks in the southern Appenines though which the army advances on the way to Rome.



Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne and Fierabras with the relics, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 70r


Fierebras is the tale of Charlemagne’s battles with the Saracens and of the encounter between his army and Fierebras of Alexander, in which the Crown of Thorns and other relics are recaptured for the Christians.

Ogier le Danois links the tales of Charlemagne with Arthurian legends, as common characters and places are introduced. Ogier, the Danish hero and enemy of Charlemagne, marries an English princess and becomes King of England, bearing a son by Morgan le Fee while he is shipwrecked on Avalon.



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


Quatre fils Aimon or Le livre de Renault de Montauban tells the story of four brothers who flee from persecution by Charlemagne, going on a crusade on Bayard, the magic horse. Renault eventually becomes a stonemason at the cathedral in Cologne and after his death his body develops miraculous properties.


Other romances

Two prose romances of Anglo-Norman origin and a chanson follow:

Pontus et Sidoine, adapted from the French version of the Anglo-Norman romance, King Horn, tells the story of the son of the King of Galicia and the daughter of the King of Brittany and their love for one another. A tale of chivalry as well as a moral treatise, it glorifies peace as a worthy aim for all, even knights and soldiers.



Detail of a miniature of Guy of Warwick as a courtier and pilgrim, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 227r


Le Romant de Guy de Warwik et d’Heraud d’Ardenne was one of the most popular romances in medieval England, judging from the number of copies that survive in both French and Middle English, mostly in verse. There are, however, only two known copies in French prose, of which this is one. Guy is an English knight who falls in love with a lady of high standing and must prove himself worthy to win her hand. He is taught chivalry by his foster-father, Heraud, and embarks on a series of successful adventures, but later comes to regret his violent past and goes on a crusade, then retires to a hermitage.



Miniature of a knight in a boat drawn by a swan; miniature of a mother in bed, with seven children in a  cradle, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 273r


The last romance in the collection is a chanson called Lystoire du chevalier au Cygne, an abridged version of part of the vast Crusade cycle. The tale of the seven children turned to swans and of Hélias, the swan knight, was linked to the legendary origins of Godefroi de Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade (1096), who became the first ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.


Didactic texts

The remaining third of the manuscript (from folio 293 onwards) contains texts which are more didactic in nature, perhaps intended for the instruction of Margaret of Anjou or of her future sons and heirs. There are three works on chivalry and warfare, an instructional manual for kings and princes, a chronicle and statutes.

Larbre des batailles is a treatise on war and the laws of battle, written for a wide audience in the style of a scholastic dialogue; a question is posed, both sides are debated and a conclusion follows.

Le gouvernement des roys et des princes is translated from Gilles de Rome’s De regimine principium, the Mirror of Princes, an influential text which interpreted (sometimes loosely) and promoted Aristotle’s political and moral philosophy to a medieval audience. It combined practical advice with philosophical guidance for rulers.



Detail of a miniature of Aubert and Ide, Robert the Devil, and Charlemagne, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 363r


Chroniques de Normandie is a history of the region from the 8th century to 1217. It begins in the time of the legendary Aubert and his son Robert le Diable, during the reign of Pepin, father of Charlemagne, the early part up to 1189 being a prose version of Wace’s Roman de Rou. The sources of the continuation from 1189 onwards have not been established beyond doubt, though there are parallels with other chronicles of the period such as Ralph of Coggeshall and Matthew Paris.

Breviaire des Nobles is a poem on the values of chivalry, beginning ‘Je Noblesce, dame de bon vouloir…’.



Detail of a miniature of Henry VI enthroned giving the earl of Shrewsbury the sword as constable of France, from Poems and Romances (the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book'), France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 405r


Le livre des fais darmes et de chevalerie is a work on military strategy and the conduct of war, compiled by its author, Christine de Pizan in 1410, from a variety of sources, both ancient and contemporary, for the instruction of young knights. Although as a woman she had no direct experience of fighting, she succeeds here in producing an authoritative work on the subject, worthy to be translated and printed by Caxton in 1489.

The Statutes of the Order of the Garter (here written in French) are the rules for the government and organisation of the chivalric order founded by Edward III in the late 1340s. The original statutes do not survive and this version is slightly different from the four early texts which were printed by Ashmole in his comprehensive work on the subject in the 17th century. Included are rules pertaining to foreign travel by members of the Order, to uniforms and to the guardianship of the order in the king’s absence.



Detail of a miniature of the Chapter of the Garter, 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


- Chantry Westwell

28 August 2012

It's Caption Time!

One of our conservators is currently examining the British Library's Greek manuscripts, with a view to having them digitised in due course. Regular readers may be aware that more than 500 of our Greek manuscripts have already been published in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

A manuscript which we hope to digitise is Egerton 3157, a 14th century book containing the Synaxaria of Nicephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, and the Encomium in Patriarcham Joseph Assemani of Ephraem Syrus. Here are two preliminary photos taken by the conservator: the question is, can you beat our captions?!

1. Hands up or I'll shoot!

E3157%20f99v[1](London, British Library, MS Egerton 3157, f. 99v)


2. Don't be scared, my pet dragon is muzzled

E3157%20f109[1](London, British Library, MS Egerton 3157, f. 109r)

23 August 2012

Chronicles, Lancelot and a Journey to Jerusalem: Royal Manuscripts Now Online


Miniature of a lake, an island, and the ships of the Scots; from Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre, vol. 1, Netherlands (Bruges), 1471-1483, Royal 15 E. iv, parts 1 and 2, f. 146r


A new batch of images from the Royal collection of manuscripts has just been made available on the Digitised Manuscripts site.  This latest collection includes a number of chronicles and one French romance -- a Lancelot du Lac.  Most of the chronicle manuscripts were made in Bruges, but the text by Matthew Paris is an English production.  This manuscript is particularly special, because the author himself both wrote and illustrated the manuscript: the itinerary map you see here is in his own hand!  Links to all these images and more can be found below.



Page from the itinerary from London to the Holy Land with images of towns, their names, and descriptions of places, with attached pieces, including the city of Rome to the right; from Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora, Part III, England (St Albans), 1250-1259, Royal 14 C. vii, f. 4r


Royal 14 C. vii    Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora, Part III, England (St Albans), 1250-1259

Royal 15 E. iv, parts 1 and 2    Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre, vol. 1, Netherlands (Bruges), 1471-1483

Royal 18 E. i    Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Netherlands (Bruges), 4th quarter of the 15th century

Royal 19 E. v    Benvenuto da Imola, Romuléon, translated by Jean Miélot, Netherlands (Bruges), 1480

Royal 20 D. iv    Lancelot du Lac, France (Arras?), 1300-1380



Miniature of Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet; with an illuminated initial 'M'(out) containing the arms of England and Bohun, and a full bar border with scenes of two men fighting and monkeys at school, in the lower margin; from Lancelot du Lac, France (Arras?), 1300-1380, Royal 20 D. iv, f. 1r



Detail of a miniature of the capture of Olivier du Guesclin; from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Netherlands (Bruges), 4th quarter of the 15th century, Royal 18 E. i, f. 48r

20 August 2012

Magna Carta Research Post at the British Library


In 2015, the British Library will be hosting a major exhibition to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. We are currently recruiting a researcher to work with the curatorial project team on the post-medieval dissemination, impact, imagery and legacy of Magna Carta in the United Kingdom and around the world. The researcher will be required to write exhibition text and related printed and online materials; to ensure that key elements of the knowledge generated by that project are transferred to the public through the exhibition; to help to organise an international conference; and to support the promotion of the exhibition in the media and to visitors. This post is partly funded by the AHRC research project on Magna Carta based at the University of East Anglia.

The researcher must have a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in early modern/modern British history, and specialist knowledge and research experience relevant to the post medieval-history and legacy of Magna Carta. Candidates will need to demonstrate the ability to promote the project through presentations, lectures, publications and social media and strong IT skills.

More details on this post can be found here.

Closing date: 16 September 2012. Interviews will be held on 25 September 2012.

Gospels, Psalms, and Prayer Rolls: More Royal Devotional Manuscripts Online


Miniature of Matthew as a scribe, with his evangelist symbol, an angel (a man), with full acanthus borders in the Winchester style, from the Grimbald Gospels, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), between 1012 and 1023, Additional 34890, f. 10v

We are pleased to announce the full digitisation of yet another group of Royal medieval devotional manuscripts, all of which have recently been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  Like our previous group of devotional manuscripts, many of these texts either belonged to or were associated with royalty or aristocracy.  Interestingly, all of the manuscripts below were produced in England, with the exception of the famous Smithfield Decretals, which was significantly embellished after its arrival on our shores in the 14th century.

Additional 34890       The Grimbald Gospels, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), between 1012 and 1023

Additional 88929       The Prayer Roll of Henry VIII, England, between 1485 and 1509 (for more information, please see Andrea Clarke's post on the prayer roll following its acquisition by the British Library in February 2011)

Harley 2278        John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds), 1434-1439 (again, more details about this manuscript are available here)


Miniature of Henry VI praying at the shrine of king Edmund at Bury St Edmunds, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds), 1434-1439, Harley 2278, f. 4v

Royal 1 E. vi      Canterbury Gospels ('The Royal Bible'), England (Canterbury), early 9th century to the 1st quarter of the 11th century

Royal 2 B. i        Psalms for Humfrey of Gloucester, England, c. 1430 - c. 1440

Royal 10 E. iv        The Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340 (please see Alixe Bovey's excellent guest post, Finishing the Smithfield Decretals)

Royal 19 B. xv        The Queen Mary Apocalypse, England (London or East Anglia), 1st quarter of the 14th century



Miniature of Alban holding a Tau-cross, presenting the kneeling duke Humfrey of Gloucester (or perhaps Henry VI), with a scroll reading 'Pietas tua domine operetur in me', to Christ as Man of Sorrows and figure of the Trinity, beneath the dove of the Holy Spirit and the Father, with two angels; and the historiated initial 'C'(um) of David playing the harp with two angels, at the beginning of Psalm 4, from Psalms for Humfrey of Gloucester, England, c. 1430 - c. 1440, Royal 2 B. i,f. 8r



Detail of a miniature of the angel with key and dragon chained, and souls in the mouth of Hell, from The Queen Mary Apocalypse, England (London or East Anglia), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal 19 B. xv, f. 38v

17 August 2012

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Online

We are pleased to announce that one of the greatest medieval English books, containing the unique copies of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is now available online. Colour images of the entire manuscript have been published by The Cotton Nero A. X Project, hosted by the University of Calgary.


The manuscript in question was written towards the end of the 14th century, and contains a series of full-page illustrations at the beginning and end of four Middle English poems -- Pearl (ff. 41r-59v); Cleanness (ff. 60r-86r); Patience (ff. 86r-94r); and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ff. 94v-130r). Regular readers of this blog may recall that the manuscript was featured in a BBC4 radio documentary in July 2011, and that it is currently on display in the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition (until 25 September 2012).

We are delighted to have collaborated with Murray McGillivray and the other members of his project team, who are also working on a commented transcription of the manuscript. Murray writes: "We are very grateful indeed for the helpful collaboration of the British Library in publishing these images. They will be a major boon to scholarship on the poems and their manuscript, and indeed will be of great benefit also to the international public, who now have intimate access to a precious artefact of major literary, artistic and historical importance."

15 August 2012

Royal Banner Used at the Purbeck Art Weeks Festival

The large banner from the British Library’s Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination exhibition has had a dramatic reuse as part of the Purbeck Art Weeks Festival 2012, held from 26 May to 10 June.

Clip_image001Photo by Mike Gale, courtesy of PURBECK! Journal

The second Dick Odgers Memorial Lecture on 8 June was delivered at the Purbeck School, Wareham, by the author and presenter, Melvyn Bragg. Bragg’s lecture discussed the impact of the King James Bible: The Book of Books: the radical impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011

The stunning image of God the Creator from a French Bible historiale was therefore an appropriate backdrop for the event. One of the PAWs trustees commented that ‘Melvyn was of course great and his talk was thoroughly enjoyed by the many people who packed into the Purbeck School hall to hear and see him.’

And that’s not all—the banner may go on tour again as part of an exciting new exhibition to be curated by Turner Prize winning artist, Mark Leckey

15 February – 14 April 2013, The Bluecoat, Liverpool

27 April – 30 June 2013, Nottingham Contemporary

12 July – 20 October 2013, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

13 August 2012

Finishing the Smithfield Decretals


Detail of a miniature of the pope and cardinals, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 4r


In about 1300, a scribe wrote 'The whole thing is finished; give the guy who wrote it a drink' in Latin on the recto of folio 314 of a copy of the Decretals of Gregory IX  that is now British Library, Royal MS 10 E. iv (see here for the Digitised Manuscripts record, and below for the scribe's note).  This scribe and his colleagues had certainly earned a pint; the 1,971 papal letters and other documents that make up the Decretals and the accompanying gloss fill 310 of the preceding folios. When this line was written, the scribes’ work may have been done, but the manuscript, known as the Smithfield Decretals, wasn’t finished in any conventional sense of the word.



Detail of a scribe's note at the end of the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 314r

And my book about this manuscript isn’t finished, either: this is my great shame. I’ve been toiling away at the Smithfield Decretals for most of my adult life, and I can’t quite bring myself to part with it. But what is so special about this manuscript? After all, there are (according to Martin Bertram's indispensable list) nearly 700 surviving manuscripts of the Decretals. The Smithfield Decretals stands apart from these other copies not because of its texts, which are fairly unremarkable witnesses to both the Decretals and the gloss, but because of its extraordinary illumination. Some of these images were included at the time that the book was made: each of the five major divisions in the text have a miniature (folios 4r, 91v, 167v, 229v, and 251r, below). But the pictorial fireworks came about 40 years later. By this time, the book was in England, where its owner commissioned a group of artists to illuminate every one of its folios, and also to append a grand table of contents to the beginning (fols. 1v-3v). Recently, for the first time, the British Library made the entire manuscript freely available in digital form, so you can marvel at the achievement of the scribes and illuminators for yourself. As you browse, bear in mind that the manuscript is almost half a metre tall.



Detail of a miniature of two men standing before a bishop, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 251r


When I started working on the manuscript, the received wisdom was that the texts were copied in Italy, and that the marginal illumination was English; we also knew that by the 15th century the book was at the Augustinian priory of St Bartholomew's in Smithfield, London, because of the ex libris on folio 1r. Thanks to luck, good advice, and graft, I was able to link the coat of arms that appears some 25 times in the book to the Batayles of Essex (see, for example, folios 3v-4r, and the detail below of apes using the Batayle shield on folio 75v), and thus to a 14th century canon of St Bartholomew’s named John Batayle. It also became clear, especially following a steer from Robert Gibbs, that the book can’t have originated in Italy, but is more likely to have been French. In 2010, I stumbled across a copy of the Decretals from Toulouse (and now in Milan) that has illumination so similar to the chapter miniatures in the Smithfield manuscript that I am convinced that the book must originate in this vicinity.



Detail of a bas-de-page scene of apes using the Batayle shield, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 75v


The Toulousain discovery exemplifies the difficulty I have had finishing my book. Whenever I make a move to write the acknowledgments, number the figures, and check the notes one last time, I think: let’s have one last go at one or other intractable problem. Sometimes, I get somewhere; and then (of course) this makes it irresistible to have a crack at another niggling issue, and so it goes. I can’t quite bring myself to put into words how long this has been going on: let’s just say that my publisher isn’t known as ‘The Longsuffering David Way’ for nothing.

If the manuscript’s origins and provenance have been absorbing problems, then those presented by the English programme of illumination in its margins are positively addictive. There are more than 600 scenes in the bas-de-page and, depending on how you count, these comprise something like 30 narrative sequences, ranging from two to more than 40 scenes. Warner and Gilson’s 1921 catalogue of the Royal and King’s library gives a fair idea of the heterogeneity of the manuscript's pictorial contents. These tales have analogues in a dizzying variety of textual and visual sources, including the bible, hagiography, romance, preachers’ exempla, and fabliau. Some of the narratives have no surviving literary analogues; others constitute isolated visual renditions of once-popular tales.



Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the penitent harlot Thäis destroying her worldly goods with her spiritual guide Paphnutius, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 180v


Identifying and interpreting these tales has been the most exciting, frustrating, and joyous endeavour of my professional life. In recent years, the biggest thrills have come from pinning down tales that have resisted explanation. One such narrative is a tangled story of violence, fornication and atonement that turns out to be an extraordinary version of the legend of the penitent harlot Thäis (fols. 177r-184v; see the detail above); my article on this will appear next year in a volume called The Social Life of Illumination (Brepols).



Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a messenger approaching a king (King Horn?) and queen, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London) c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E. iv, f. 314r

The most recent ‘Eureka!’ came last December, when I was researching my paper for the conference accompanying the Royal Manuscripts exhibition. The last narrative in the manuscript, which ends on the same page as the scribe’s thirsty colophon, is a tale of romance, royalty, and frenzied letter writing. Could this be the only pictorial version of the romance King Horn?  I suspect so; but I have to finish writing it up. When I do, my first toast will be to the Toulousain scribe who thought the Smithfield Decretals was finished when he put his pen down.


Alixe Bovey

University of Kent