Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from September 2012

29 September 2012

What Does Magna Carta Mean to You?

If you've been following the news recently, you may have witnessed British Prime Minister David Cameron being grilled on the meaning of Magna Carta. When quizzed by David Letterman on American television, Cameron remembered correctly that Magna Carta was issued in 1215, at Runnymede, but seemingly failed to identify that Magna Carta means "the Great Charter".

In response, an article on the BBC website has asked Is Magna Carta overrated?, going on to question whether the importance of Magna Carta has been exaggerated. Scholars continue to debate those questions; but it's surely remarkable that a document written almost 800 years ago, in order to resolve a dispute between a medieval king and his barons, still commands such attention in the 21st century. You can see the clauses that remain valid in English law here.

In 2015, the British Library will be commemorating Magna Carta in a major exhibition. But in the meantime you can see the document for yourself, and learn about the people involved in its making, on our dedicated Magna Carta pages.


28 September 2012

The Miroir Historial: A History of the World in a (Large) Nutshell


Detail of a miniature of Caesar crossing the Rhine, with the arms of the Holy Roman emperor held by one of the soldiers, at the beginning of book 7, from the Miroir Historiale (translated by Jean de Vignay from Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historial), Netherlands (Bruges), 1479-1480, Royal MS 14 E. i, part II, f. 50r

The Miroir Historial (Mirror of History), an encyclopaedia of world history in French, was a part of Edward IV's collection of illustrated historical works produced in Bruges in the early 1470s.  Now part of the Royal Collection, it featured in the Royal Exhibition earlier this year at the British Library, and is now digitised in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site (click here for Part I, and here for Part II of the manuscript).  The text, a history of the world from Creation to the year 1250, is fully readable and the colourful images accompanying each section are available to view in detail on our website.

The Miroir Historial is based on the historical section of the Speculum maius or 'Great Mirror', a vast Latin work by the Dominican scholar Vincent de Beauvais, produced between 1230 and 1260, during the reign of the saintly King Louis IX of France. This medieval equivalent of Wikipedia was a collection of all the knowledge of the Middle Ages, compiled from a wide variety of sources, including Christian, classical, Arabic and Hebrew.  It is a monumental work of scholarship in three volumes, divided into 80 books or 9885 chapters, which became the leading reference work of its day. The Speculum was made up of three parts, each one covering a different branch of knowledge: the Mirror of Nature, the Mirror of Doctrine and the Mirror of History (a fourth part, the Mirror of Morality, was added later).



Detail of a miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great, at the beginning of book 5, from the Miroir Historial (translated by Jean de Vignay from Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale), Netherlands (Bruges), 1479-1480, Royal MS 14 E. i, part 1, f. 177v


The Speculum Historiale was translated into French by a Knight Hospitaller, Jean de Vignay, in the 14th century. It covers the entire history of man from the Creation up to Vincent's lifetime, including tales of Alexander the Great, Mahomet, Charlemagne and Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain, and ending with King Louis' crusade to the Holy Land in 1250. Although the French version does not seem to have had a wide circulation, judging by the relatively small number of surviving manuscripts, the work was dedicated to Jeanne, wife of Philip VI of France and was owned by important collectors such as John, Duke of Berry.



Miniature of Vincent of Beauvais as a Dominican monk, sitting at a desk and writing his book, at the beginning of book 1, with a full border containing the Royal arms of England, from the Miroir Historial (translated by Jean de Vignay from Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale), Netherlands (Bruges), 1479-1480, Royal MS 14 E. i, part 1, f. 3r


Edward IV's copy contains an iconic image of Vincent de Beauvais writing at his desk (which visitors to the Royal exhibition might remember).  Behind Vincent can be seen his collection of beautifully-bound books on shelves, an indication of the possible outward appearance of the work in its original binding, which does not survive.  The artists responsible for this and the other smaller miniatures in the manuscript were professionals from a Bruges atelier that produced other books for the English king. The borders contain Edward's coat of arms, and Royal insignia of the type found in many of Edward's manuscripts, over forty of which are in the British Library's collections today.

- Chantry Westwell

26 September 2012

Temporary Unavailability of Select Manuscripts: Important Notice

We regret to inform you that, due to essential maintenance works, some of the British Library's Western Manuscripts material will be unavailable to readers from 10 January 2013 until 12 March 2013.

This work will affect a large portion of our high grade material (Select, Restricted and Z Safe). Readers will need to return any such items already issued to them by 9 January 2013. 

Surrogates are available for a significant number of the items affected. We are continuing to add full digital coverage of more manuscripts (including some affected by these temporary restrictions) to our Digitised Manuscripts site.

If you plan to consult manuscript material during this time, please contact British Library Customer Services using the details at the top of our contacts page.

We apologise for any inconvenience this essential work may cause.

25 September 2012

Ranulf Higden and Noah's Ark


The first page of the prologue, with decorated initial P and foliate border; from Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, England, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley 3877, f. 9r.

Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) was a Benedictine monk famous for writing the Polychronicon, a universal chronicle of world history. Finished originally in 1340, it was continued throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, both by Higden and other writers. The Polychronicon was extremely popular, and is now extant in over 100 manuscripts. Even during Higden's lifetime, in 1352, King Edward III requested that the author come to court, bringing his chronicle with him.

Higden's work is encyclopaedic, incorporating descriptions not just of historic events, but of customs, natural history and geography. In some manuscripts this included a map of the world. The one in Royal 14 C. ix is an early and elaborate example that may closely reflect Higden's original version. As was the traditional medieval form for such maps, Jerusalem is in the centre, with Paradise above, in the east.  Britain (shown here in red and labelled 'Anglia') is to the lower left, at the very edge of the known world.


Map of the world with east at the top; from Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, England, last quarter of the 14th century, Royal 14 C. ix, ff. 1v-2r.

While Higden is termed the 'author' of the Polychronicon, it is not all his original prose. Instead, he brought together a variety of authorities, compiling excerpts, anecdotes and explanations from previous histories. This technique is visually evident in the diagrams of Noah's ark. Its relatively precise description in the Bible has long prompted attempts to portray the ark's exact dimensions and layout. Polychronicon manuscripts frequently include two diagrams, side-by side, one with the plan as described by Augustine, and a competing version drawn from other authorities. Both plans show areas reserved for 'men' (upper left) and 'birds' (upper right), as well as for 'gentle' and 'ungentle' animals (herbivores and carnivores, housed separately, for obvious reasons). Further down are an area for supplies and, at the very bottom, the bilge. The picture even answers the question that has occurred to many a child on hearing about the ark: where did they go to the bathroom? One section on each diagram is labelled 'Stercoraria', or 'privy'.


Detail of two diagrams of Noah's ark, labelled with the functions of the different parts of the ship; from Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley 1728, f. 47r.

Higden's chronicle provides a window onto the interests of medieval historians (and medieval readers of history), and comparing different manuscripts offers insight into how he organized the whole knowledge about the world. The Polychronicon includes a number of aids for breaking it down into manageable units. An alphabetical index is a common feature of Polychronicon manuscripts, listing the book and chapter number reference for characters from Abraham to Zorobabel.


The beginning of Book VI, with two marginal columns prepared for recording the year, dating both from the birth of Jesus and within the reigns of Louis II (left) and Alfred (right); from Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, England, c. 1445, Harley 3884, f. 118v.

Also interesting is the treatment of dates. Many of the manuscripts keep track of the relative chronology of events by noting dates in the margins, alongside the text. These dates were even provided on pages where none appeared, by running headings at the top of the page. Harley 3884 has an elaborate example of this system, with red columns running down the page. Above are headings labelling the columns by the year 'of grace' (the number of years since the birth of Jesus, roughly equivalent to our modern dating CE) and the dating according to important people. On this page, the left column records the regnal year of the 9th-century Louis the Stammerer, and that on the right the regnal year of the West Saxon King Alfred.

The consistency in presenting these dates indicates that they were formed an intergral part of the Polychronicon's organization. This consistency even crossed linguistic lines. John Trevisa made an English translation of Higden’s work, completed around 1387. On the page below, from an early 15th century manuscript, are the same headings for the year 'of grace' and regnal date of Louis (though without the red columns). Polychronicon manuscripts vary in quality, but all, from the most haphazard to the most deluxe, are influenced by the same impulse toward organizing history and knowledge about the world.


The beginning of Book VI, with a right margin containing chapter numbers, the names 'lodowycus' and 'Alvredus', and dates; from Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, translated by John Trevisa, England, last quarter of the 15th century, Harley 1900, f. 234r.

20 September 2012

Not Just a Pretty Picture: Illustrating a Royal Romuléon


Miniature of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf; from Benvenuto da Imola, Romuléon, translated by Jean Miélot, Netherlands (Bruges), 1480, Royal 19 E. v, f. 32r.

This stunning manuscript (Royal 19 E. v) was made in the Netherlands, at a workshop in Bruges. It was made, however, specifically for the king of England, Edward IV, as is triumphantly evident from the border decoration on this illuminated page. Edward IV's arms (the three lions of England quartered with the fleurs de lis of France) are carried by angels, and the white rose of the House of York features prominently. Edward greatly admired the workmanship of Flemish illuminators, and, around 1479-1480, acquired a large number of such impressively illustrated manuscripts, which remain in the British Library's Royal collection, and some of which are accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website (see, for example, Royal 14 E. i, vols 1 and 2 and Royal 14 E. iv).

It is possible that Edward's acquisitions were inspired by his admiration for the libraries owned by some of the court surrounding Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy and a major patron of the arts in the 1460s. This manuscript would certainly fit such a model: the text is the Romuléon, a medieval Latin compendium, translated into French by one of Philip's court scholars, retelling the history of Rome from its foundation to the reign of the emperor Constantine. Depicted here, on the first page of Book I of the work, is the discovery by a shepherd of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of the city of Rome. The boys, according to the story, were the twin sons of the god Mars and a princess named Rhea Silvia, who had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin by her usurping uncle. When, despite her vowed chastity, Rhea Silvia became pregnant, she was killed, and the two brothers were cast out into the wilderness to die. They were saved from starvation by a she-wolf, who nursed Romulus and Remus, and became one of the iconic images of the Roman state.

In this illustration, Romulus and Remus are shown nursing in the foreground, being discovered by a shepherd. The picture adopts a common convention of medieval art, compressing time and combining multiple events in a single, economical image. In the background, the shepherd is shown again, now with the children in his arms, handing them over to his wife for her to raise as their own.

Miniature of an army on the march; from Benvenuto da Imola, Romuléon, translated by Jean Miélot, Netherlands (Bruges), 1480, Royal 19 E. v, f. 125r.

But how did the illuminator know what to draw?  Not, in this manuscript as in many others, by actually reading the book! This is clear on several pages, where we can still see the instructions on how to proceed. At the very bottom of the page pictured above, written in letters extremely small and hurried, are the original instructions to the illustrator, left by one of the manuscript's design managers and describing what needed to be shown in the illustration. On most pages, these notes no longer remain, or are only fragmentary: they are located so near the bottom of the page because it was always intended that they would be trimmed away when the manuscript was finished and bound, so that they would no longer spoil the immaculate page. While such notes may not be visually beautiful, however, they are extremely valuable to historians, providing a sneak peek into the process of production for the manuscript.

Detail of instructions to the illustrator; from Benvenuto da Imola, Romuléon, translated by Jean Miélot, Netherlands (Bruges), 1480, Royal 19 E. v, f. 125r.

When enlarged, it is just possible to read these words, written, like the text itself, in French. They say, 'It needs a company with several armed people, both on foot and on horseback, going to war through the countryside'. Details unnecessary for the production of the illustration – like the identity of the 'armed people' – have been left out. Despite this, however, the illuminator has executed these instructions well. That the armed party, who likely represent either the Carthaginian or Roman forces during the Second Punic War, are wearing contemporary armour and march through a landscape of Gothic towers, is fully in keeping with medieval artistic conventions.


Detail of a miniature of the emperor Trajan adopting Hadrian; from Benvenuto da Imola, Romuléon, translated by Jean Miélot, Netherlands (Bruges), 1480, Royal 19 E. v, f. 367v.

17 September 2012

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander


Detail of a headpiece of the Gospel of Matthew: roundel portrait of the Evangelist, with five smaller roundels arranged around him, depicting ‘the ancient of days’ (top), two six-winged cherubim, Abraham (lower left), and Isaac (lower right), from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, f. 6r


On Wednesday, 5 September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of the display of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures gallery.

At the reception Caroline Brazier, Head of the British Library’s Scholarship and Collections directorate, announced that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander may now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website (click here for the fully-digitised Gospels). На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art.  Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the fourteenth century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  It was copied by a monk named Simeon, whose identity we know from a long inscription that he appended to the biblical text. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text are no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – that illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists.  Every opening of the book thus sparkles with colour and visual interest. However, as Simeon himself makes clear in his account of the making of the volume, the Gospel book was created 'not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision'.



Royal portraits: f. 2v: Constantine, the son-in-law of Ivan Alexander, flanked by three daughters of the tsar: Kerathamar (Constantine's wife), Keratsa and Desislava; f. 3r:  Ivan Alexander in imperial garb, accompanied by his wife Theodora, his son Ivan Shishnan in imperial garb, and another son Ivan Asen. Above, two hands emerge from a cloud, making gestures of blessing over the Tsar and his wife, from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, ff. 2v-3r


At the front of the volume is the most famous image painted in the Gospels (above).  Here we meet face-to-face the ruler of the Bulgarian empire and the person who ordered the book to be made, Tsar Ivan Alexander.  Also shown is the Tsar’s then wife, as well as his two sons by her, his three daughters by his first wife, and lastly his son-in-law.  

On display in the Treasures gallery is one of the five other portraits of the Tsar included in the manuscript. In this miniature Ivan Alexander is depicted, not with his earthly family, but in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary, and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgement. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark's account of Jesus's prophecy of the end of time. The end result is perhaps the finest of what the volume’s scribe, Simeon, called its 'life-giving images'.



Miniature of the Last Judgement, with Tsar Ivan Alexander in conversation with the Virgin Mary, from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, f. 124r


The manuscript is a remarkable survival.  Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed.  Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube.  Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander.  For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul's to the young English traveller the Honourable Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Library by his daughter.

The other manuscript on display beside the Gospels of Ivan Alexander is a fitting companion: the Vidin Gospels (Additional 39625). This important copy of the Gospels was also made in Bulgaria during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander. It was produced at Vidin and for the Metropolitan of that city, Daniel. Later in its history it too was presented to Curzon on Mount Athos, this time at the monastery of Caracalla, and subsequently by his daughter to the Library.


Ivan Alexander in Treasures

10 September 2012

Final Opportunity to See Gawain

For those of you who love Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a reminder that the original manuscript is on display in the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition until 25 September 2012.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 129r

The manuscript is one of the British Library's greatest literary treasures, combining the unique copies of four Middle English classics (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) with a cycle of illustrative miniatures. You may also like to know that images of the entire book are also now available online.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 95r (detail)

Should you be in London, it's well worth a visit to see not only Gawain but other original manuscripts by the likes of Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Lennon, JK Rowling, Robert Louis Stephenson and JRR Tolkien. A veritable literary feast!

07 September 2012

Image and Text Meet in a Royal Regiment


Miniature of the author presenting his book to Henry V; from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 40r.


This manuscript dates from the second quarter of the fifteenth century: shortly after, that is, the deaths of Thomas Hoccleve -- the author of the works contained in this collection -- and of King Henry V, to whom, as Prince of Wales, Hoccleve had dedicated the most famous of these works, the Regiment of Princes.  The Regiment is an example of the 'Mirror for Princes' genre, where a poet gives advice to a prince or king on how he should rule both his nation and himself.  Images of all of Royal 17. D. vi are available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

In the miniature above, we see Hoccleve kneeling before Henry, presenting him with a copy of his book.  Such presentation portraits are common features of the beginning of manuscripts, but this one is a bit unusual, falling as it does well into the text.  It comes at the point when Hoccleve finally begins to speak directly to the prince, near the end of his astonishing prologue to the Regiment -- remarkable, because the prologue alone is nearly one half of the full work.  In it, he explores his reasons for writing the Regiment, as well as his own position in the literary tradition.

And that tradition is very important to him.  Hoccleve, like a number of his colleagues in the poetic circles of early fifteenth-century London, greatly admired Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, and the literary lion of the previous generation.

In fact, Hoccleve claims to have actually known Chaucer before the death of the great man, a death he repeatedly laments throughout the poem: 'My dere maister [master], God his soule quyte [acquit] / And fader Chaucers fayn wold me han taught [And father Chaucer wanted to teach me] / But I was dulle and lerned right naught' (f. 41r, Regiment lines 2077-79).  As with the presentation portrait that interacts so closely with the text of the poem, appearing as it does right at the point when Hoccleve speaks to Henry directly ('Hye and noble prince excellent / My lord the Prince, O my lord gracious', f. 40r, Regiment lines 2017-28), Hoccleve also creates a unique interaction between text and image centred around the figure of 'Father Chaucer.'



Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer; from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 93v.

A portrait of the famous author stands in the margin.  Unlike many medieval portraits, this one actually attempts to capture a likeness.  It has been faithfully copied at the creation of the manuscript, along with the text, but is one of a number of manuscript drawings of Chaucer (compare, for example, the one found in Harley 4866) that are believed to descend from a painted panel portrait -- in this case, indirectly.  To the best of our knowledge, then, this is what Chaucer really looked like!  Here, the author points at the text where Hoccleve has explained his reasons for wanting the portrait to be included:

'Although his life queynte [quenched] be, the resemblaunce
of hym hath in me so fressh livelynesse,
That to putte other men in remembraunce
Of his persone, I have here the liknesse
Do make to this ende in Sothefastnesse,
[Caused to be made for this purpose, in truth,]
That [so that] they that have of hym lost thought and mynde
By this peynture [painting] may ageyn [again] hym fynde'.
(f. 93v, Regiment lines 4992-98)

In an age when each copy of a book was a unique artistic production, often made decades or centuries after the death of the author, Hoccleve's effort to draw text and image together so closely was an ambitious one, which we are fortunate to find here so faithfully reproduced.


Decorative border on a page from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 48r.  The Latin note in the margin has been provided by Hoccleve, and identifies the source he used when composing the adjacent text.  The provision by an author of such additional apparatus, while not unique, is unusual, and is a further indication of Hoccleve's intention to take into account all aspects of the manuscript book -- not just the text alone.