Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

11 posts from November 2012

29 November 2012

Shot through the Heart and You're to Blame


Miniature, above, of Arthur and Guinevere presiding at a feast and, to the left, Arthur in conversation with his barons while, behind him, Guinevere and Lancelot share a private word; in the margin below, two knights are locked in a duel and a group of monkeys attends school; from the Prose Lancelot, France, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 D. iv, f. 1r; the large miniature was added in England (Pleshey castle), c. 1360-c. 1380.

'Chivalry', derived from the French cheval ('horse') and chevalier ('horseman' or 'knight'), means literally 'knightliness', a quality that, in the Middle Ages, could be variously defined in different regions and at different times: nobility of soul, adherence to a certain code of conduct, or even straightforward military strength.  Nowadays, 'chivalry' is usually used to describe a specific kind of interaction between the sexes, a transferral from a particular type of medieval knightliness, the stylized code we now refer to as 'courtly love'.  The medieval term was fin' amors, 'refined love', and it was primarily a literary construct, dictating the interactions between men and women in one of the Middle Ages' most enduring genres, the romance.


Detail of a miniature of King Uther Pendragon (left) conversing with Merlin, while, in the background, Igraine looks on from her castle; from Peter Langtoft, Chronicle of England, England, c. 1307-c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A. ii, f. 3v.

Medieval romance is most familiar from stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, where questing knights rescued damsels from towers, competing for their favour.  In the earliest Arthurian tales, however, the tone is more history than high romance, and the relationship between men and women far from 'refined'.  Arthur himself was conceived when King Uther Pendragon fell in love with the beautiful – and married – Duchess Igraine at a party.  Far from doing her courtly service and winning her love, however, Uther besieged her husband's castle and killed him in battle, then seduced the unwitting widow (as yet unaware of her husband's death) by having Merlin cast a spell disguising Uther as the late duke.  A rough and ready strategy – no word on whether, after they were married, Uther held open any doors for her.


Detail of a miniature of lovers, including a friar and a monk as well as laymen, pierced through the heart by the arrows of love; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-c. 1340, Royal MS 19. B. xiii, f. 4r.

Later, the tone of the Arthurian subject-matter was transformed by the introduction and development of a set of literary conventions, the classic fin' amors.  Troubadours did poetic service to their beloveds, dedicating love songs to aristocratic patronesses, just as a knight offered homage and military service to his feudal lord.  Beauty of face and form was, at the time, considered a reflection of inner beauty, and nobility of soul was thought the natural birthright of those of noble rank.  The beauty of a woman struck the lover like an arrow, sometimes described as piercing the heart by way of the eyes: love at first sight.  Once wounded, the heart of the lover would burn with desire, longing to be quenched by the mercy of the beloved's reciprocal regard.


Miniatures of (in the initial) a poet-lover presenting verses to his lady and (in the right margin) a lover's heart, burning on a fire and being quenched with rain; from a collection of 49 love sonnets, Italy (probably Milan), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, King's MS 322, f. 1r.

Love could also be elevating, inspiring a lover to the achievement of great feats of martial strength and skill.  When a knight excelled in a tournament, it was evident that the worth – and thus beauty – of his inspiration must be great indeed, and the beauty of a lady could be judged by her champion's success.  Guinevere must have been very beautiful indeed – in one gently parodic story, Lancelot fought an opponent while facing backward, the better to keep in view Guinevere, who watched the battle from a tower behind him.  In the end he won by manoeuvring his enemy between himself and the queen so he could see both of them at once – his own strength a testament to the strength of his love.


A tournament between knights (including Tristan, labelled with a 'Ti'), watched from a gallery by an audience of interested ladies; from the Prose Roman de Tristan, Italy (Genoa), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4389, f. 29r.

Nicole Eddy

27 November 2012

Social Media and Medieval Manuscripts

On 29 January, 2013, Julian Harrison (Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts) will be speaking at a workshop at the Institute of Historical Research, London, entitled Developing an effective social media presence. This event will explore ways in which organisations such as the British Library promote their collections, and how we use social media to engage with a diverse audience.


Following a panel session also featuring Laura Cowdrey (The National Archives) and Isabel Holowaty (University of Oxford), participants will join a discussion on how to develop and manage a social media presence. Registration is free, but places are limited so please book early.

The Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section at the British Library is responsible for maintaining this blog, which has already exceeded 250,000 page views in 2012 alone. We also try to stay in touch with our users via Twitter -- the blog and Twitter together are a great platform for announcing new acquisitions, events and exhibitions, and the latest on our various digitisation projects. We're always excited to hear from you too -- and hopefully some of you may be able to attend the London social media workshop on 29 January.

23 November 2012

Exploring Our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts


Detail of a miniature of, on the left, Alexander the Great on the Wheel of Fortune, rising to prosperity and falling to ruin, and, on the right, his grandmother Queen Euridyce looking down at her murdered son, Alexander II; from Jean de Courcy, Chronique de la Bouquechardière, France (Normandy, Rouen), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4376, f. 271r.

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is an important online resource for exploring the British Library's manuscript collections.  Begun in 1997, the catalogue focuses primarily on illumination, providing both descriptions of manuscripts' content and a searchable database of images, of everything from text pages to decorated initials to full-page miniatures.


Detail of a miniature of the important 15th-century poet John Lydgate, the 'monk of Bury', riding to Canterbury as one of Chaucer's pilgrims; from John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 119, f. 1r.

While it was first developed more than a decade ago, the catalogue is far from being a closed document, but continues to grow and expand with the addition of even more images.  The most recent update took place earlier this month, and the catalogue now includes 35,661 images from 4,231 different manuscripts.  Part of this expansion has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which last February awarded a grant to the library to support the digitisation of a selection of manuscripts from the recent Royal exhibition.  This has enabled the addition of more than 75 new manuscripts to Digitised Manuscripts, as well as nearly 300 new images to CIM, just from Royal manuscripts alone.


Detail of a miniature of angelic Powers tearing at the heads of demons; from Convenavole da Prato, Regia Carmina (Address to Robert of Anjou), Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335-c. 1340, Royal MS 6 E. ix, f. 6v.  A full digital version of this manuscript is also available on Digitised Manuscripts.

The catalogue is designed to increase public access to the British Library's rich collections, and we want to encourage even greater use and enjoyment of these collections.  Technically these works are still in copyright in the UK until 2040, but given that they are anonymous and many centuries old, the Library has decided to provide the images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts under a Public Domain Mark and treat them as public domain works, as would be the case in many other countries.  For more information, please see the library's use and reuse policy for CIM.  We ask that you maintain the library's Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the image's source on the British Library's site – help us share these riches even more widely with the world.


Miniature of Mary Magdalene; from a book of hours, use of Sarum, the Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, King's MS 9, ff. 55v-56r.

There are many different ways to enjoy the British Library's collections through the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  If you're interested in a particular manuscript, you can search for it directlyKeyword or advanced searches using specific characteristics of the manuscript or its illumination can also be used to directly locate medieval images from a given region or time period, or even of a particular subject matter.  Or, if you are just interested in exploring, why not take a tour of some collection highlights?  Our curatorial staff have teamed up with other experts to put together a series of virtual exhibitions, exploring topics that range from manuscripts of the Bible to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, to medieval bestiaries.  The most recent tour, written by Joanna Frońska, takes a closer look at some of the gems of illumination in the Royal collection.

Hopefully this post – as well as its accompanying images – gives a taste of the treasures the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has to offer.



Calendar page from the month of May, with miniatures of a couple taking a bath and a bird holding a fish; from a book of hours (the 'Maastricht Hours'), the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 7r.

21 November 2012

Pop Goes the Weasel

If you have been reading this blog on a regular basis, you may have discovered that beavers used to gnaw off their testicles to evade hunters, that owls were associated with sickness, that monkeys could play bagpipes, and that people used to eat unicorns in the Middle Ages. But none of those marvellous beasts can quite match the magnificent weasel, which at various times was said to conceive young through their mouths, to give birth through their ears, and to be able to cure other animals.

Detail of a miniature of a fox, afflicted with dropsy, being cured by a weasel, in Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit: Salzburg, c. 1430 (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 109v).

What lent the weasel these supernatural qualities is unknown, but it is curious to note that different cultures have attached different significance to this animal. For example, in ancient Greece a weasel around the house was a sign of bad luck, and even more so if a girl was about to be married -- the animal was believed to be an unhappy bride who was transformed into a weasel, and delighted in destroying wedding dresses. Native Americans likewise regarded weasels as a bad omen, since crossing their path led to a speedy death; but elsewhere, including Macedonia and in the territory of the Wends (the western Slavs), weasels brought good fortune.

A bas-de-page scene of weasels, who are said to conceive young through their mouths, and to give birth through their ears, in the Queen Mary Psalter: England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320 (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 112v).

The medieval tale Eliduc, by Marie de France, contains another story of the weasel's miraculous powers. A female weasel stumbled across the body of her male companion, and ran to the neighbouring wood where she fetched a certain red flower. She then placed the flower in the mouth of her partner, who was instantly revived, and the happy weasels ran away together. Observing this amazing recovery, the flower was used in turn to revive a damsel who had collapsed in a swoon, and who so happened to be Eliduc's long-lost love. 

Miniatures of a weasel and other animals, including a cat and a hedgehog: England, middle of the 13th century (London, British Library, MS. Harley 3244, f. 49v).

Those of you familiar with English nursery rhymes may also recall that the weasel turns up in "Half a pound of tuppeny rice" ... though in that case perhaps simply to find a word that rhymes with "treacle"! We're sure you would agree that there must be more to the weasel than meets the eye ...

Marginal drawings of a weasel and other animals, in Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica: England (Lincoln?), late 12th or early 13th century (London, British Library, MS Royal 13 B. VIII, f. 11r).

19 November 2012

New Additions to Digitised Manuscripts


Detail of a miniature of the animals leaving Noah's Ark; from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add. MS 18850, f. 16v.

The project of digitising manuscripts from the recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition continues apace! We are pleased to report that the project is nearly complete: of the manuscripts scheduled to be digitized, only the Alphonso Psalter (Add. MS 24686) remains unfinished. It has also become possible to add one more manuscript from the exhibition to the list, a manuscript that has yet to be chosen. We would love suggestions as to which it should be. Do you have a favourite manuscript from the Royal exhibition that did not make our original cut? Please send us your nominations for a final addition to our project, and we hope to be able to announce its completion soon. All suggestions can be posted here as comments, or submitted via email to Royal-Manuscripts-Digitization[at]


Miniature of musicians performing before Alexander the Great; from Secretum Secretorum, translated by Philip of Tripoli, England (London), 1326-1327, Add. MS 47680, f. 18v.

Once all the manuscripts from the Royal exhibition digitisation project are published online, we will post a comprehensive list on this blog. In the meantime, the latest batch to be made newly available is listed below.


Detail of a miniature of David killing a lion, having already dispatched a bear and a unicorn; from the Bedford Psalter and Hours, England (London), 1414-1422, Add. MS 42131, f. 95r.

Additional MS 18850: the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430.

Additional MS 42131: the Bedford Psalter and Hours, England (London), 1414-1422.

Additional MS 47680: Secretum Secretorum, translated into Latin by Philip of Tripoli, England (London), 1326-1327.

Cotton MS Tiberius A. II: the Coronation Gospels of King Aethelstan (r. 924-939), Lobbes (?) (in what is now Belgium), 4th quarter of the 9th century, with some later additions (previously featured on this blog).


Miniature of God creating the world; from Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale, France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411, Royal MS 19 D. iii, vols 1 and 2, f. 3r.

Royal MS 2 A. xxii: the Westminster Psalter, England (Westminster), c. 1200-c. 1250 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 6 E. ix: the Address of Prato, Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335 (previously featured on this blog, and part of a new exhibition at the Getty in Los Angeles).

Royal MS 14 E. i, vols 1 and 2: Le miroir historial by Vincent of Beauvais, the Netherlands (Bruges), 1479-1480 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 16 F. ii: poetry by Charles of Orleans, epistles of Pseudo-Heloise, 'Les demandes d'amour' and 'Le livre dit grace entiere', Bruges and London, 1483 and 1492-1500 (previously featured on this blog).

Royal MS 19 D. iii, vols 1 and 2: Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins, France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411.

Royal MS 20 E. ix: the Rotz Atlas (the Boke of Idrography by Jean Rotz), France and England (London), c. 1535-1542.


Map of the West Indies, including the coastlines of Peru, Cuba and Florida; from the Rotz Atlas, France and England (London), c. 1535-1542, Royal MS 20 E. ix, f. 24r.

16 November 2012

British Library Manuscripts Featured in New Getty Exhibition

K90049-88 Royal 6 E. ix ff. 4v-5 

Miniature of Christ in glory holding a globe and blessing the Virgin (on the following page); miniature of the Virgin kneeling (towards Christ on the previous page), from the Address in verse to Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, from the town of Prato in Tuscany (the Carmina regia), illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, central Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335 - c. 1340, Royal MS 6 E. ix, ff. 4v-5r.

An exciting new exhibition has just opened at the Getty Center in Los Angeles: Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350.  Please see here for a fabulous review of the Getty exhibition.

An important British Library manuscript, the Carmina regia, an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou (Royal MS 6 E. ix) is featured in the exhibition (see here for an earlier blog post abot the Carmina).  This manuscript was also showcased in the Library’s recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, but visitors to the Los Angeles exhibition will be able to see a different image, that of Christ Enthroned (f. 4v, see above, and at the bottom for a version of the image used to promote the exhibition).

The Carmina regia is now also available to be viewed in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website (see here).


K047548 Add 18196, f. 1

Miniature of Agnes enthroned flanked by two musician angels, with scenes from her life below. Beneath the miniature is a single four-line red stave, musical notation and a single line of text in gold capitals 'Sancta Agnese da dio'.  Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340, Additional 18196, f. 1


The Library has also lent two leaves to the exhibition, which were both originally part of a single manuscript: Additional 18196, f. 1, with scenes from the life of St Agnes (see above), and Additional 35254B, with part of a hymn to St Michael. These leaves have been reunited in the exhibition with others from the same book of songs (or laudario) made for the Compagnia di Sant'Agnese, which was based at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.  28 leaves or fragments of this book survive, and 25 of them are featured in the exhibition.


C00800-06 Add 35254B

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael.  Beneath the miniature is a single four-line red stave, musical notation and a single line of text in gold capitals 'Exultando in Gesu'. Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340, Additional 35254B


The curator of the exhibition, Christine Sciacca, explains that this book was originally 'the most spectacular Florentine manuscript commission' from the first half of the 14th century.  (Christine Sciacca, 'Reconstructing the Laudario of Sant-Agnese', in Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance, ed by Christine Sciacca (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012), pp. 219-35 (p. 219)).

All three loaned works were painted by Pacino di Buonaguida, who was active in Florence in the first half of the 14th century.

- Kathleen Doyle



14 November 2012

Rediscovering Malory: Digitising The Morte Darthur

Add_ms_59678_f071rFirst page of the section on Arthur's Roman wars ('Hyt befelle whan kyng Arthur had wedded quene Gwenyvere...'); from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 71r.

The Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory has been, for the English literary tradition, the most influential presentation of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  It directly inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court –- and all that before the rediscovery of the only extant manuscript copy of the text, in 1934.

Malory was as much a translator and adaptor as an author, and his book gathers together and sets in order a comprehensive retelling of the full Arthurian story, from Arthur's conception and birth to his death, the fall of Camelot, and the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot.  Malory's sources range from English poetic texts (like the Alliterative Morte Arthure, about Arthur's continental campaign against the fictional Roman emperor Lucius) to the great French 'Vulgate Cycle', a monumental, multivolume prose work about (among other things) Lancelot, Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Add_ms_59678_f070vLast page of what was Book IV in Caxton's edition, with a colophon identifying the author as 'a knyght presoner Sir Thomas Malleorre'; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 70v.

Prior to 1934, the Winchester manuscript was not 'lost', but was part of the Winchester College Library.  But no one had realized its importance: its text had not been identified with the book published by the pioneering English printer William Caxton in 1485.  Before the manuscript's rediscovery, Caxton's early edition had been our only witness for Malory's text, the basis for all subsequent printed versions.  But the Winchester manuscript (now British Library, Add. MS 59678) was a slightly earlier copy, written c. 1480.  Indeed, while it is not the manuscript Caxton used as the basis for his edition, the printer did consult it.  Close examination of the manuscript's pages has revealed smudges left by the still-wet ink of freshly printed pages left lying on the book –- in a typeset identified as Caxton's (an article by Lotte Hellinga and Hilton Kelliher in the British Library Journal gives the full story of this discovery).

Add_ms_59678_f029vA page from the Tale of Sir Balin, including two marginal notes calling attention to the exploits of Garlonde the invisible knight, and a pointing hand indicating something of interest in the text; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 29v.

Finding the manuscript revolutionised our understanding of what had been believed to be a well-known book.  Caxton had made slight changes to the text, sometimes rewording or abridging what Malory had written, in order to fit the correct amount of text onto each page.  Caxton's changes were particularly significant in the portion of the text derived from the Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Malory's prose reworking of the poem retained much of the alliteration and metre of the original, to a far greater degree than was reflected in Caxton's version.

Add_ms_59678_f152rPage from the Tale of Sir Tristram, including a marginal note calling attention to a 'fayre Brachette', or hunting dog, given to Tristram by the daughter of the King of France; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 152r.

To 'rediscover' the Winchester manuscript for yourself, visit Digitised Manuscripts, where a full digital version of the manuscript has just been made available!  The experience of reading the book in its manuscript form is quite different from that offered by modern editions, even those based on the Winchester version of the text.  Most striking is the liberal use of red ink, with nearly every proper name in the manuscript written in red, in a slightly more formal script.  Scholars do not yet agree on why this was done, but everyone concurs it makes for a very striking visual presentation.


Add_ms_59678_f357vPage from the 'Sankgreal' (Holy Grail), including a marginal sketch of a cross, perhaps related to the adjoining story of Sir Galahad and Sir Melyas at a crossroads, with a cross signposting, on the right, the path of 'a good man and a worthy knyght', and, to the left, a way where they 'shall nat there lyghtly wynne prouesse'; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 357v.

Nicole Eddy

12 November 2012

Found in a Bricked-Up Chamber: The Reading Abbey Library Catalogue

In 2011, this blog featured a library catalogue from Rochester Cathedral Priory (London, British Library, MS. Royal 5 B XII), which attracted comments from several of our readers. A number of catalogues and book lists survive from the Middle Ages, being a remarkable source of information about the intellectual life of their owners. One of the most interesting examples is a 12th-century library catalogue from Reading Abbey (London, British Library MS Egerton 3031), one of the wealthiest Benedictine monasteries in medieval England, founded by King Henry I in 1121. The ruined walls of the chapter house and major buildings can be seen in the centre of Reading, and many artefacts are on display at Reading Museum and Art Gallery.


If we wish to learn more about the monks' daily lives, the library catalogue is a great place to look. It is part of a cartulary from Reading Abbey, purchased by the British Museum in 1921 using funds bequeathed by Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (d. 1829). The book has a remarkable history. It was discovered in 1790 in a bricked-up chamber by a workman who was demolishing part of a wall at Shinfield House, near Reading, home to Lord Fingall (whose family sold the manuscript to the British Museum). How the cartulary came to be there remains a mystery -- was the hiding place at Shinfield used by a Reading monk when Henry VIII’s followers ransacked the monastery, or was it buried in the chamber at another time?

A list of 'relics which are kept in the church of St Mary, Reading', including pieces of the Holy Cross and a stone from the hill of Calvary with Christ’s blood on it: London, British Library, MS. Egerton 3031, f. 6v.

Perhaps the contents provide a clue. The cartulary contains an inventory of the abbey’s possessions, a list of vestments and relics, and a list of books including those owned by the cell at nearby Leominster. Such information about the property of a wealthy institution would be invaluable not only to the monks but also to later owners of the monastery's estates.

First page of the library catalogue: London, British Library, MS. Egerton 3031, f. 8v.

The library catalogue only takes up four pages, but it lists about 300 books according to subject with the heading in red ink, Hii sunt libri qui continentur in Radingensi ecclesia (These are the books contained in the church of Reading). It begins with four Bibles, each comprising three or four volumes. Next were glossed books of the Bible, one of which is probably British Library, Additional MS 54230, a copy of the book of Judges with other texts. One of the largest categories contains the works of the Church Fathers, particularly St Augustine, for whom 18 volumes are listed. Following these are a small collection of classical texts and, lastly, liturgical books, such as breviaries, missals and antiphoners for use in the daily devotions. Liturgical books for common use are seldom found in library catalogues and very few survive, but in this case the compiler of the catalogue included books kept away from the main monastic library, in the chapels, monks’ rooms and even the infirmary.

It is sometimes possible to match the works in a catalogue to surviving manuscripts. For example, Bede’s commentary on Luke, listed in the Reading catalogue, is now British Library, Egerton MS 2204. The decoration of the opening page is in a style associated with Reading Abbey and on the facing flyleaf is the ownership inscription Hic est liber sancte [effaced] Quem qui celaverit vel fraudem de eo fecerit anathema sit (This is a book belonging to St … (erased) cursed be whoever steals or misuses it).

Thanks to in-depth research by Neil Ker, Richard Sharpe, Alan Coates and others, many surviving manuscripts from Reading have been matched with the corresponding catalogue entries. Exemplars belonging to other institutions or individuals, from which Reading books were copied, have also sometimes been identified. And so a simple list of books made in the late-12th century provides a window not only into the types of books monks studied, but also one through which we can learn about where they travelled and how they obtained their books.

Chantry Westwell