Medieval manuscripts blog

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14 posts from October 2012

12 October 2012

More Gorleston Psalter 'Virility': Profane Images in a Sacred Space

This is the second of a two-part series about the marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter; for more information, please see the post "Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible" Design

The existence of marginalia – particularly of the blasphemous, sexual, or scatological varieties – was for a long time a source of unease and uncertainty for manuscript scholars.  One explanation for its presence was the suggestion that medieval illuminators suffered from a horror vacui (or fear of empty space), which presumably required them to fill empty pages at random.  Other scholars characterized marginalia as essentially meaningless, purely decorative sources of distraction.  Another approach was for scholars to simply ignore it entirely; the original description of the Gorleston Psalter in the British Library Catalogue, for example, scarcely mentions the manuscript’s marginalia at all.



f. 98v:  detail of a marginal scene of a hybrid nun with a cowled grotesque, now mostly erased


Marginalia can sometimes be shocking for modern viewers who have never encountered it before.  Whilst giving tours of the recent Royal exhibition, I was frequently asked whether these kinds of images were created by later 'vandals' to undermine the sacred nature of the original texts.  In reality, the reverse is often true; it is not uncommon to find that subsequent owners of a manuscript have either erased or defaced paintings that they presumably found particularly troubling.  There are several occurrences of this kind of later revision in the Gorleston Psalter.  In light of what was allowed to remain, these must have been considered horrifyingly offensive – I leave the original subject of one instance (f. 98v, above) to your imaginations.

Not all the miniatures in the Gorleston Psalter are so potentially explosive, however.  The manuscript features a number of images of everyday life in 14th century England, similar to those found in the Rutland Psalter and the Luttrell Psalter (Add MSS 62925 and 42130, both of which will be included in Digitised Manuscripts). See below for two scenes that must have been very common sights for the original readers of this manuscript - disregarding the outsized butterfly, of course.



f. 153v: detail of a marginal scene of a man plowing with oxen, with a butterfly above


f. 193r:  detail of a marginal scene of man working on a forge


But these sorts of 'normal' images are in the distinct minority.  Along with animals behaving strangely and people behaving badly, most of the Gorleston Psalter's pages also feature grotesques and hybrids, creatures that are part-animal, part-man, and even sometimes part-foliate border (see below).



f. 94v:  detail of a marginal scene of a man watching a mass in an historiated initial


A few of the fabulous creatures populating Gorleston's folios can be seen engaging in a direct interaction with the 'proper' text itself.  On f. 94v, for example, the figure emerging from the border looks to be extremely interested in the Mass depicted in the initial above him.  On a number of occasions in the Psalter, the reader him or herself is the subject of (perhaps) mocking attention.



f. 123r:  detail of a marginal creature pulling a face


Another subset of Gorleston's marginalia (and marginalia in general) is that which depicts the monde renversé – or upside-down world – where the usual rules are turned on their heads and the lines between humans and animals are blurred.  A few particularly charming examples:



f. 164r:  detail of a marginal scene of rabbits conducting a funeral procession


f. 106v:  detail of a marginal scene of a rabbit and another animal playing music



f. 102v:  detail of a miniature of a man on horseback encountering a monkey displaying its hindquarters


The last image above may be startling to today's readers, but it is far from anomalous.  The Gorleston Psalter, like many manuscripts from this period, exhibits an apparently endless fascination with the examination of bottoms.  A lot of ink has been spilt explaining the presence of these profane images in what is essentially a sacred space - the Psalter is, of course, a book of prayer, intended for personal religious observance and devotion. How can we then explain the presence of the following?



f. 104r:  detail of a marginal scene of a grotesque hybrid examining another’s hindquarters



f. 61r:  detail of a marginal scene of a man displaying his hindquarters



f. 82r:  detail of a marginal scene of a nude bishop chastising a defecating cleric


Criticism of these kinds of images is nearly as old as the images themselves.  The most famous (and freqently cited) is that of Bernard of Clairvaux, who asked: 'What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities...? One could spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God. Good Lord, even if the foolishness of it all occasion no shame, at least one might balk at the expense.' (Bernard of Clairvaux, Excerpts from the Apologia to Abbot William of St-Thierry, VII.30; see here for more). 

But the fact that so many patrons did not balk at the expense implies that many people considered these ridiculous monstrosities to be desirable, even valuable.  In the last 30 years or so, significant efforts have been made to understand marginalia in its proper context; there are many theories about its function and purpose (see for example Lillian Randall's Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts or Michael Camille's Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art).  The margins may have been a safe place for subversion against cultural norms, a sort of carnival on the page.  They might serve as demonstrations of artistic skill, or as creative parody, intended to evoke the laughter that they still succeed in drawing from us today.  Many kinds of marginalia also functioned as additional commentary on the text that they surround, or as anti-examples, moral guides about what not to do.  One suspects that is the case with the kind of image below, which shows a man in a monk's cloak emptying a purse of coins before a woman - presumably in exchange for her sexual services.



f. 142r:  detail of a marginal scene of a monk offering money to a woman


A complete and comprehensive explanation for all of these fantastic images still eludes us, but perhaps that is the point.  To me, the very impossibility of capturing the meaning of marginalia is the source of its power, and a sign that the lines between sacred and profane in the medieval era were much more complicated and fluid than we have heretofore imagined.  I will leave you with a few more examples of mysterious marginalia, those that are (thus far) unclassifiable.  Any suggestions on interpretation are, as always, very welcome.



f. 48v:  detail of a marginal scene of a man vomiting, presumably in a begging bowl held out by a grotesque (there are several similar scenes in the manuscript; if you wish to pursue the subject further, please see f. 62r or f. 124v)


f. 146r:  detail of a marginal scene of a hybrid monkey in a monk’s cloak, sawing a pile of books (?)



f. 209r:  detail of a marginal scene of a man whipping a noosed rabbit


There is an embarrassment of riches with the Gorleston Psalter's marginalia.  Please have a look at the manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site, or follow us on Twitter at @blmedieval; over the coming weeks we will be tweeting more images from this extraordinary manuscript. 

- Sarah J Biggs

11 October 2012

'Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible' Design: The Marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter

This is the first of a two part-series on this extraordinary manuscript and its extraordinary marginalia.  Please check the blog tomorrow for the second bit!


f. 8r:  Historiated initial 'B'(eatus) of the Tree of Jesse, with marginal scenes of a hunt and David and Goliath


If reader enquiries are any indication, the most recent addition to our Digitised Manuscripts site has been eagerly – even impatiently – anticipated.  We are very happy to end the agony of suspense and to let everyone know that the Gorleston Psalter (Add MS 49622) is now online; please click here for the fully-digitised version.

The Gorleston Psalter dates from c. 1310, and has pride of place among a group of similar Psalters which 'are the special glory of the East Anglian school of book-decoration' (according to Sydney Cockerell, who wrote a book about the Gorleston Psalter in 1907 before it entered the British Museum's collections).  The Psalter was originally produced for a person associated with the church of St Andrew's, Gorleston (Norfolk), from which it derives its name, but exactly who this person was remains a mystery.



f. 10r:  Detail of an historiated initial ‘C'(um) of an elderly bearded layman in prayer, possibly the manuscript's original patron


A bearded layman makes a number of appearances throughout the manuscript, usually in attitudes of religious devotion (see, for example, f. 10r), and these images may represent the original patron.  One  candidate for this position is Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk and Marshal of England (c. 1245 – 1306), but more recently it has been suggested that the honours may lie with John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey (1286 – 1347), whose arms can be seen throughout the manuscript.  Additional evidence for this theory could come from the overwhelming number of rabbits that feature in the Gorleston Psalter, seen occasionally in their warrens – a possible visual pun on the Earl's family name (see below, and the bas-de-page of the Beatus page, at the top).



f. 177v:  detail of a marginal scene of rabbits sharing their warren with a stag


Soon after the manuscript's creation it came into the possession of Norwich Cathedral Priory, where an extra miniature, prayers and a litany were added c. 1320-1325 (ff. 7r-7v & ff. 226r-228r).  The original manuscript seems to have been written c. 1310 by a single scribe, who worked in close collaboration with a group of illuminators.  This workshop may have been located in Gorleston itself, and seems to have been a prolific one. A number of other manuscripts have well-established connections to Norfolk in general and Gorleston in particular, including the Stowe Breviary (c. 1322-1325, BL Stowe MS 12), the St Omer Psalter (c. 1330-1340, BL Yates Thompson MS 14), the Douai Psalter (Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 171, almost completely destroyed during WWI), and the famous Macclesfield Psalter (c. 1330, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005).



f. 107v:  Historiated initial 'E' of the resurrected Christ with musicians below, and marginal images of musicians and a knight holding arms


The Gorleston Psalter may be among the earliest surviving products of this group, and is typically richly illuminated – or, to quote Cockerell – the Psalter exhibits a 'virile, if somewhat irresponsible' design.  It is not clear which aspect of the manuscript's decoration earned it this semi-pejorative characterization, but I suspect that the most likely culprit is the wild profusion of marginalia and bas-de-page images that are found throughout it.



f. 45v:  detail of two marginal hybrid grotesques


f. 190v:  detail of a marginal scene of a fox seizing a duck, with 'sound effects' added in a later hand, reading ‘queck’ [quack] (with thanks to Erik Kwakkel of Leiden for recently featuring this detail on Twitter)


It is difficult for our modern minds to conceive of a world in which holy miniatures could co-exist with silliness and misbehaviour, but this is certainly the case; close examination of these manuscripts have shown that far from being marginal, these images were a crucial part of the programmes of illumination, planned in advance and carefully executed. But it is not always completely clear what function these marginal images served.  Check in tomorrow for a further exploration of this question - and, of course, many more spectacular images.


- Sarah J Biggs

08 October 2012

Describing Medieval Manuscripts

For those of you unfamiliar with medieval manuscripts, here are some handy tips to help you tell your quires from your graduals.

The British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts supplies a helpful glossary to the terms used in describing medieval manuscripts. The glossary is reproduced there with the kind permission of Michelle P. Brown and the publishers of her Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (Malibu and London: The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with The British Library, 1994). This online glossary provides explanations of the common terms you may encounter, from Abbreviations ("often used to save space and effort when writing") to Zoomorphic Initial ("an initial partly or wholly composed of animal forms").

A zoomorphic initial found in London, British Library, MS Harley 2798, f. 151r.

A quick glance highlights the breadth of technical terms used by manuscript specialists, such as Backdrawings, Palimpsests and Xylographs (there had to be something beginning with "X"). Also featured is a glossary of Hebrew terms, from Aggadah to Yom Kippur.

We also recommend the excellent guide by Barbara A. Shailor, The Medieval Book: Illustrated from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Toronto: University of Toronto Press in association with The Medieval Academy of America, 1991). There you will find succinct accounts embracing writing materials, scripts, decoration and bindings, all illustrated with examples from the Beinecke Library at Yale. 

So, what are Quires? Our glossary defines them as "the 'gatherings' or 'booklets' of which a book is formed". A Gradual refers to "the principal choirbook used in the mass", but is also "the response and versicle to the Epistle reading that constitutes one part of the mass".

A page from a Gradual, London, British Library, MS Arundel 71, f. 9r.

We recommend that you study the glossary whenever you encounter a new expression. Maybe some day you may also find yourself immersed in the world of manuscript culture.

With thanks to our former colleague, Catherine Yvard, who provided the online version of Michelle Brown's glossary.

05 October 2012

Digitising Royal: New Perspectives on the Royal Manuscript Collection: A Workshop at the British Library

Royal Workshop

Following on the success of our recent Royal workshop in Durham, Illuminated Manuscripts and Their Users, we are pleased to announce that we will offer another, this time in London.  This workshop will take place at the British Library on 9 November, from 10:30 - 13:00, and will focus on the issues and opportunities surrounding our recent digitisation efforts.  The workshop will allow the participants to interact with a selection of manuscripts from the Royal collection, as well as their newly-created digital surrogates.

The session will open with a brief overview of our recent digitisation efforts by project supervisor Dr Kathleen Doyle, called 'Digitised Manuscripts at the British Library.'  Dr Joanna Fronska and Sarah J Biggs will then speak about the variety of challenges (and opportunities) that have arisen in the course of the complicated Royal digitisation programme.

This will be followed by three presentations on the various aspects of research made possible (or significantly easier!) by the existence of digital surrogates; these surrogates will be examined in detail alongside the manuscripts themselves.

Joanna Fronska: 'The Making of the Coronation Book of Charles V (Cotton MS Tiberius B. viii, ff. 35-80)'

Sarah J Biggs:  'A Closer Look at the Iconography of the Bohun Psalter and Hours (Egerton MS 3277)'

Nicole Eddy: 'Interoffice Memos: Instructions to Illustrators and Rubricators'

This workshop is designed primarily for MA and PhD students of manuscript studies, but it is also open to any member of the public with a particular interest in the subject.  If you would like to attend, please email Royal-Manuscripts-Digitization [at] by 5 November at the latest.  Spaces are limited to a maximum of 15 participants, so an early response is encouraged.  There is, however, a possibility of holding additional sessions in future, so please do get in touch if you would like to attend.

02 October 2012

Lindisfarne Gospels Back on Display

We are pleased to announce that, from 1 October 2012, the Lindisfarne Gospels is back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, following its six-month conservation rest.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the Library’s greatest treasures, and was made around AD 700, probably on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It is thought that the book is the work of one remarkably gifted artist, who produced both words and images, thereby giving the manuscript a coherent sense of design.

The Lindisfarne Gospels: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. IV, f. 15v.

According to an inscription added at the end of the manuscript some time later, that artist was a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription records that Eadfrith wrote the book ‘for God and for St Cuthbert and – jointly - for all the saints whose relics are in the island’. It also describes the original binding made by Billfrith the anchorite, which included a cover adorned with gold, silver and precious gems.

On display from 1 October 2012 until 1 January 2013 is a splendid opening from the canon tables before the first Gospel, decorated with the animal figures and intricate abstract designs characteristic of Anglo-Saxon art. These tables are the ‘Eusebian Canons’, which function as a system of cross-reference within the Gospels, and predate the division of the Bible into chapters. Each of ten canons lists episodes, identified by section numbers, held in common by all four Gospels, or any combination of them. The canons exhibited are six, seven and eight, which list episodes common to Matthew and Mark, Matthew and John, and Luke and Mark (Cotton Nero D. IV, ff. 15v-16r).

The Lindisfarne Gospels: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. IV, f. 16r.

You can see the rest of the Lindisfarne Gospels on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

01 October 2012

A Calendar Page for October 2012

For more details on calendar pages of the Hours of Joanna of Castile, please see the entry for January 2012.

Add 18852 ff. 10v-11

Calendar pages for October, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 10v-11

The year's final cycle of plowing and sowing is underway in these two connected scenes from the October calendar pages.  On the left, two men work with a horse and an oxen team to plow a field, beneath a threatening sky.  On the right, a group of people are at work scattering seeds into the field, while a woman holds a beautiful metal jug (filled, one hopes, with the fruits of last year's wine-making).  In the roundel above can be seen a set of scales, a symbol for the zodiac sign Libra; this symbol was probably painted in error, as it is usually shown in September.