Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from October 2012

31 October 2012

Happy Halloween!

Yates Thompson 7 f. 174r detail

Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, with 'Memento homo' in a roundel at the left, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours ('The Hours of Dionara of Urbino'), central Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson 7, f. 174r


Happy Halloween, everyone! 

29 October 2012

Off With Her Head! Pictures from the Prose Tristan


Miniatures of (above) Tristan and his mentor arriving at a castle and (below) Tristan arriving in Cornwall by ship; from Roman de Tristan en prose, last quarter of the 13th century or first quarter of the 14th century, Italy (Genoa), Harley MS 4389, f. 15v.

Tristan and Isolde are two of the great lovers of medieval literature, and their doomed affair was retold in several different versions. The British Library's Harley MS 4389 contains an incomplete copy of the Roman de Tristan in French prose, enlivened by a large number of coloured drawings illustrating the story. They are not the highly finished productions of elite illuminators, but nevertheless they hold tremendous appeal.

The overall impression given by these pictures is of movement and dynamism. The most common subjects are battles (between two knights or as part of a chaotic mêlée) and travel. Ships recur again and again: carrying passengers, approaching castles, even standing in the background of a combat. In one stretch of six consecutive miniatures, only one does not contain a ship. The visual emphasis on Tristan's travel transforms him into an itinerant figure, wandering through the world of Cornwall, Ireland and Gaul.


Detail of a miniature of Tristan (left) fighting Morholt; from Roman de Tristan en prose, last quarter of the 13th century or first quarter of the 14th century, Italy (Genoa), Harley MS 4389, f. 18v.

The drawings are sometimes simple and formulaic, particularly when depicting battles between knights. The repetition creates a visual continuity, as knights travel by ship through a landscape dotted with opportunities for combat. But the illustrations do not wholly eschew the specific, and some are immediately identifiable. Below, for example, is the story of Tristan's birth. Tristan's parents were also ill-fated lovers: when his father's kingdom was attacked, his mother fled in secret. Their story ended with the king killed in battle, and the queen dead in childbirth. In this picture, Tristan's mother lies dead in a field, and her waiting woman, holding the infant Tristan, has been found by two knights who will take him to be raised in exile by loyal retainers.


Detail of a miniature of the death of Tristan's mother; from Roman de Tristan en prose, last quarter of the 13th century or first quarter of the 14th century, Italy (Genoa), Harley MS 4389, f. 5r.

The best-known part of Tristan's story, in the Middle Ages as well as today, was his love for Isolde. Tristan had been sent to Ireland to retrieve the princess Isolde, his uncle King Mark's betrothed. On the way back, the two fell in love when they unwittingly drank a love potion intended for Isolde to share with her future husband. Their subsequent clandestine affair became a source of great tension between Tristan and his uncle, who suspected the truth and periodically plotted against Tristan, the most skilled knight in his court.


Detail of a miniature of Isolde (far left, in a rare appearance) and the Beautiful Giantess, watching the duel between Tristan and Brunor (far right); from Roman de Tristan en prose, last quarter of the 13th century or first quarter of the 14th century, Italy (Genoa), Harley MS 4389, f. 59v.

In the illustrations of Harley 4389, however, this iconic affair is given very little attention. Isolde appears only rarely, even as other women are given greater attention. Two miniatures, for example, are devoted to the story of the Beautiful Giantess. Tristan and Isolde have travelled to a country where it is the custom that the lord, Brunor, cut off the head of any lady less beautiful than his own love, the Beautiful Giantess. Tristan kills Brunor, but afterwards the people demand that he uphold custom and decapitate the Beautiful Giantess, as Tristan showed himself the stronger knight and all agree Isolde is the more beautiful lady. Tristan does not wish to, but, when threatened with his own death, complies. The illustrators' choice of what to draw, and what not to, creates a distinct reading of the text.


Detail of Brunor lying dead while Tristan decapitates the Beautiful Giantess; from Roman de Tristan en prose, last quarter of the 13th century or first quarter of the 14th century, Italy (Genoa), Harley MS 4389, f. 60v.

Nicole Eddy

26 October 2012

What's on Digitised Manuscripts? The Top 10

The British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, launched in September 2010, is now over two years old. You may not have noticed everything that has appeared online so far, so here are our medieval and early modern highlights, in approximate chronological order:

The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000)

Add MS 89000, f. 34r

The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV)

The Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV)

The Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352)

Add MS 19352, f. 57v

Gerald of Wales (Royal MS 13 B VIII)

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum and Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII)

Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

Sumer Is Icumen In (Harley MS 978)

The Gorleston Psalter (Add MS 49622)

The Smithfield Decretals (Royal MS 10 E IV)

The Psalter of Henry VIII (Royal MS 2 A XVI)

Royal 2 A xvi f. 30
Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 30r

More content is being added on a regular basis, and updates will appear on this blog and via our Twitter feed, @blmedieval. Which highlights would you have chosen?

24 October 2012

Bad News Birds


Detail of an owl in a decorative border; from a description of the Holy Land by Martin de Brion of Paris, France, 1540, Royal MS 20 A. iv, f. 3v

Everyone knows the image of the wise old owl.  But the bird had a very different reputation in the Middle Ages.  At that time, it was a bird of ill-omen, believed to frequent tombs and dark caves.  It would fly only at night, and, according to some sources, flew backwards.  On the rare occasions when the owl ventured out during the day, it got no better treatment from its fellow birds than it did from medieval bestiaries: they would raise a terrible clamour and attack in a mob.


Detail of a miniature of an owl being mobbed by other birds; from a bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 47r

With the allegorical gloss typical of bestiary descriptions, the owl's preference for darkness over light made it a figure of the unbeliever, who had yet to embrace the light of the Christian gospel.  This hidden significance, as well as its distinctive, sometimes goofy appearance, no doubt prompted its use in decorative motifs and among the marginal grotesques of books of hours.


Miniature of an owl being mobbed by other birds; from The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 128v

Among its other faults, the owl was considered an extremely dirty animal, invariably soiling its nest.  Because of this, as well as its other unpleasant associations, it was strongly identified with sickness.  The term bubo, derived from the Greek word for the groin, was the term for a type of swelling symptomatic of colorectal cancer.  The Latin word for 'owl' was also bubo (although the two uses are etymologically unrelated), and due to the bird's unsavoury associations, it was believed that the swelling had taken its name from the animal, as a filthy and unpleasant affliction, as well as a bad omen for the patient's prognosis.


Detail of a miniature of an owl; from the Liber medicinarum by John of Arderne, England, 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 5401, f. 46r

This explains the appearance of the owl in the margins of some medical manuscripts.  In the image above, a rather jaunty little horned owl stands beside the passage describing the medical bubo.  Such an image would likely function as a mnemonic aid and reference tool.  The physician or medical student, paging through the book, would see bubo the owl and immediately know he had located the passage on bubo the ailment, a functional play on words.

Nicole Eddy

22 October 2012

Paging through Troilus and Criseyde


The beginning of Book I; from Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2392, f. 1r

Geoffrey Chaucer is probably the most famous English poet of the Middle Ages, well known for his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.  Chaucer wrote other works besides the Tales, however.  Before setting his pen to the famous story-telling contest, his greatest work was probably the long romance in five books called Troilus and Criseyde.  Out of 16 extant manuscripts, 6 are today at the British Library.


Detail of a portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer; from The Canterbury Tales, England, c. 1410,  Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

Troilus and Criseyde were legendary lovers during the Trojan War.  Today that conflict is more familiar from stories about the Trojan horse, or the judgment of Paris.  But for several centuries in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the courtly love affair between Troilus and the fickle Criseyde was a popular and familiar part of the Trojan story.  Criseyde, the beautiful daughter of a Trojan priest, professed her undying love to Troilus.  But when her father defected to the Greek side, she was sent to join him, and became the mistress of the Greek warrior Diomedes. The story appeared in a number of different works, both literary and historical: Shakespeare even based one of his tragedies on the plot (Troilus and Cressida).

While the Trojan prince Troilus, son of Priam, was a character mentioned by Homer and other ancient Greek authors, those classical versions of his story are very different from the medieval tale.  According to the Greek authors, there was a prophecy that the fate of the city of Troy was tied up with that of its prince, and that if Troilus was killed, Troy too would fall.  Troilus's death at the hands of Achilles, therefore, doomed the city that shared his name.  There was no mention of a love affair.


Detail of a miniature of a battle and, to the right, Troilus greeting his mother, Queen Hecuba; from the Histoire ancienne jusq'à César, Italy (Naples), c. 1330-c. 1340, Royal MS 20 D. i, f. 139v

The love story was the invention of the 12th-century author Benoît de Sainte-Maure.  It was expanded in the 14th century by Boccaccio, whose most famous work the Decameron, a collection of tales framed by a story-telling competition, would have its own afterlife in Chaucer's canon.  Chaucer's transformation of Troilus's story as he found it in Boccaccio's Il Filostrato was therefore part of a larger adaptation of the best of contemporary Italian literature into a new English poetic.

The British Library's Troilus manuscripts all date from the 15th century -- a few decades, that is, after the death of the author.  Their pages, while calligraphically beautiful with their decorative borders and letters picked out in red and blue, are not elaborately illustrated.  But they allow us the experience of participating in the literary avant-garde of the late Middle Ages.


The first page of Book IV; from Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, England, 1st half of the 15th century,  British Library, Harley MS 2280, f. 57r.

Nicole Eddy

18 October 2012

British Library Journal Now Online

A sixteenth-century design for a revolving reading desk: Agostino Ramelli, Le diverse et artificiose machine; composte in lingua Italiana et Francese (Paris, 1588), p. 317. London, British Library, 48.f.15.

A few months ago, we drew your attention to the Electronic British Library Journal, which publishes scholarly research into the history of the British Library and its collections (Medieval News and Views). The eBLJ (for short) is the successor to the British Library Journal, which appeared between 1975 and 1999. We are delighted to report that articles from the British Library Journal are now available online, bringing the combined back catalogue of the British Library Library and eBLJ into one simple location.

A full listing of British Library Journal articles from 1975 onwards is found here. Below you will find hyperlinks to those contributions relating to ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. The topics covered include Magna Carta, Codex Sinaiticus, the Bedford Hours, the Cotton Genesis, Christine de Pizan, and the Sforza Hours; while a quick glance at the list of contributors -- among them Janet Backhouse, Christopher de Hamel, Thomas Kren, Nigel Morgan and Colin Tite -- emphasizes the journal's scholarly reputation.

We continue to welcome contributions to the Electronic British Library Journal, and will also endeavour to publicise the fruits of that research in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog.

British Library Journal articles

1 (1975)

Janet Backhouse, An illuminator’s sketchbook

T. S. Pattie, The ruling as a clue to the make-up of a medieval manuscript

2 (1976)

Michael Borrie, What became of Magna Carta?

D. H. Turner, The Wyndham Payne Crucifixion

3 (1977)

T. S. Pattie, The Codex Sinaiticus

Lotte Hellinga & Hilton Kelliher, The Malory manuscript

4 (1978)

R. F. Green, Notes on some manuscripts of Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes

5 (1979)

Judith Oliver, Reconstruction of a Liège Psalter-Hours

Retha M. Warnicke, The Laurence Nowell manuscripts in the British Library

6 (1980)

Colin G. C. Tite, The early catalogues of the Cottonian library

7 (1981)

Andrew G. Watson, An early thirteenth-century Low Countries booklist

Janet Backhouse, A reappraisal of the Bedford Hours

Kristine Edmondson Haney, The paint surfaces in the Psalter of Henry of Blois

9 (1983)

Sandra Hindman, The composition of the manuscript of Christine de Pizan’s collected works in the British Library: a reassessment

10 (1984)

Janet Backhouse, The making of the Harley Psalter    

12 (1986)

M. L. Evans, A newly discovered leaf of ‘The Sforza Hours’

13 (1987)

T. S. Pattie, Ephraem the Syrian and the Latin manuscripts of ‘De Paenitentia’ 

John N. King, The account book of a Marian bookseller, 1553-4

Penelope Wallis, The embroidered binding of the Felbrigge Psalter

Marian Wenzel, Deciphering the Cotton Genesis miniatures: preliminary observations concerning the use of colour

Andrew Prescott, The structure of English pre-Conquest Benedictionals

Nigel Morgan, The artists of the Rutland Psalter

Christopher de Hamel, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from the library of Sir Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962)

Janet Backhouse, The Tilliot Hours: comparisons and relationships

M. L. Evans, New light on the ‘Sforziada’ frontispieces of Giovan Pietro Birago

14 (1988)

Bodo Brinkmann, The Hastings Hours and the Master of 1499

15 (1989)

Clyve Jones, The Harley family and the Harley papers

16 (1990)

Rosamond McKitterick, Carolingian uncial: a context for the Lothar Psalter

Andreas Petzold, Colour notes in English Romanesque manscripts

Linda Ehrsam Voigts, The ‘Sloane group’: related scientific and medical manuscripts from the fifteenth century in the Sloane collection

Barry Taylor, An old Spanish translation from the 'Flores Sancti Bernardi' in British Library Add. MS. 14040, ff. 111v-112v

David Hook, Egerton MSS. 302 and 303: a Spanish chronicle cycle and its history

J. E. Cross, Missing folios in Cotton MS. Nero A. I

17 (1991)

Colin G. C. Tite, A catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton’s printed books?

David H. Wright, From a copy to facsimile: a millennium of studying the Vatican Vergil

S. E. Lee, Two fragments from Cotton MS. Otho B. X

18 (1992)

Janet Backhouse, Sir Robert Cotton’s record of a royal bookshelf

James P. Carley, The Royal library as a source for Sir Robert Cotton’s collection: a preliminary list of acquisitions

E. C. Teviotdale, Some classified catalogues of the Cottonian library

Colin G. C. Tite, ‘Lost or stolen or strayed’: a survey of manuscripts formerly in the Cotton library

Elisabeth M. C. van Houts, Camden, Cotton and the chronicles of the Norman Conquest of England

Sylvia Wright, The author portraits in the Bedford Psalter-Hours: Gower, Chaucer and Hoccleve

20 (1994)

Michelle P. Brown, The role of the wax tablet in medieval literacy: a reconsideration in light of a recent find from York

W. Schipper, Dry-point compilation notes in the Benedictional of St Aethelwold

Lynda Dennison, The Apocalypse. British Library, Royal MS. 19 B. XV: a reassessment of its artistic context in an early fourteenth-century English manuscript illumination

Margaret Connolly, Public revisions or private responses? The oddities of BL, Arundel MS. 197, with special reference to Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God

Patricia Basing, Robert Beale and the Queen of Scots

T. S. Pattie, A fragment of Ephraem the Syrian and the rare word asiantos vindicated

22 (1996)

Simon Keynes, The reconstruction of a burnt Cottonian manuscript: the case of Cotton MS. Otho A. I 

David Postles, The Garendon cartularies in BL, Lansdowne 415

Thomas Kren, Some newly discovered miniatures by Simon Marmion and his workshop

23 (1997)

David G. Selwyn, ‘Books with manuscript’: the case of Thomas Cranmer’s library

24 (1998) 

J. H. Bowman, The Codex Alexandrinus and the Alexandrian Greek types

25 (1999)

Stella Panayotova, Cuttings from an unknown copy of the Magna Glossatura in a Wycliffite Bible (British Library, Arundel MS. 104)

Joyce Coleman, New evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s raid on Sempringham Priory, 1312

15 October 2012

Elephants on Parade


Detail of a miniature of an elephant; from a herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 50v.

Consider the elephant.  While elephants may have been thin on the ground in medieval Europe, the animals were still a vivid part of the medieval imagination, in bestiaries and other texts, where the exotic and frankly unbelievable descriptions were variously interpreted and misinterpreted by illuminators.

In India, so the story went, elephants were sent into battle as moving fortresses, with wooden towers on their backs, protecting the men inside.  This is the image of the ‘elephant and castle’ that became widespread in heraldic iconography, and whose best-known survival today is in the name of Elephant and Castle in south London.  Something to think about next time you're on the Bakerloo line!


Miniature of an elephant and castle; from a bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 8r.

Elephants were also recommended ingredients in medicines, although such exotic treatments were hopefully better known in theory than in practice.  In a medical book like Harley 1585 we find a variety of uses.  The ivory of their tusks, when ground down, was thought to clear up blemishes.  And, for a patient passing blood in his urine, drinking the blood of an elephant could act as a sovereign cure.  Have a headache?  Elephant dung, applied directly to the head, ‘sets the pain to flight wondrously’!  Now there’s a remedy unlikely to be sold at the local pharmacy.


Miniature of an elephant; from Liber medicinae ex animalibus, attributed to Sextus Placitus, Southern Netherlands (Meuse Valley), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 1585, f. 67v.

The most detailed descriptions, however, can be found in medieval bestiaries, where anecdotes about elephants’ habits are paired with moral interpretations of these traits as Christian allegories.  The elephant, as it turns out, was far from prolific.  A female could breed only once in her life, when she led her mate far to the east, where mandrake grew.  This remarkable plant, whose roots resembled human beings, was an effective elephant aphrodisiac: without it, mating was impossible.  When it was time to give birth, the female would enter the waters of a lake, to protect herself and her vulnerable calf from the elephant’s principal antagonist -- the only predator large enough to constitute a threat -- the dragon.  Adam and Eve, it was explained, were like the male and female elephant, and the mandrake represented the forbidden fruit Eve led her husband to taste.  After the Fall, the couple were banished into the uncertainty of the world, signified by the undulating waters of the lake.


Detail of a miniature of an elephant and a dragon; from a bestiary, England, between 1236 and c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 39v.

The elephant was also vulnerable to another kind of fall, this one literal -- although it too was also routinely allegorized.  The unfortunate elephant, it was said, had no knees, but walked on legs whose bones were a single fused column.  The elephant could not therefore bend over: the trunk was useful there!  Nor could it sleep lying down, but leaned against a tree.  A hunter could capture the fearsome beast, therefore, by creeping up and sawing through the trunk of the tree.  When the trunk broke, the elephant would topple to the ground and be unable to raise itself.  Unable, that is, without the help of a much smaller elephant (a type of Christ for its humility) who would come and lift its fallen comrade with its trunk.


Details of miniatures of an elephant and castle and a herd of elephants; from the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 11v.

- Nicole Eddy

13 October 2012

Magna Carta Researcher

We are currently advertising for the post of Researcher: The Post-Medieval Legacy of Magna Carta.

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

You 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. The ability to work effectively with the research materials and within the project team on this deadline-driven project are essential. You will need to demonstrate the ability to promote the project through presentations, lectures, publications and social media and strong IT skills.

Closing date: 28 October 2012. Interviews will be held week commencing 5 November 2012.

The People's Charter, 1838: London, British Library, C.194.a.938 [], tp.