Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

11 posts from November 2012

07 November 2012

Beavers On The Run


Miniature of a beaver in the act of biting off his testicles; from a bestiary, (?)England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 3544, f. 6r

Beavers are immediately recognisable in medieval bestiaries because they are always depicted the same way: on the run, pursued by a hunter, who is frequently blowing a horn and accompanied by hunting dogs. The story of beavers as related in the bestiaries is extremely colourful. The beaver was highly sought after for his testicles, which had many medicinal uses. The clever beaver was aware of the desirability of these organs, and had a strategy to ensure his escape. If he found himself pursued by hunters and was unable to get away, the beaver would bite off his own testicles and throw them into the hunter's path. With no further motivation for pursuit, the hunter would give up and the beaver live to see another day.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver set upon by hunting dogs; from Tractatus de herbis (an herbal), Italy (Salerno), between c. 1280 and c. 1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 22r.

This ploy could only work once. What if the beaver found himself pursued a second time? On that occasion, he would stop and roll over, showing his pursuer that he no longer had the prize so ardently sought. The disappointed hunter would abandon the chase, again allowing the beaver to live.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver in the act of biting off his testicles; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (probably Rochester), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 14r.

This story may seem fanciful, but it actually holds a grain of truth. Beaver testicles have no special value, but the animal does have a gland under its tail that secretes a chemical called castoreum, a term taken from castor, the Latin word for 'beaver'. Castoreum is used by the animals for scent-marking and waterproofing, and it was this chemical, not the genitalia, that was valued for its medicinal properties. Indeed, the familiar, plant-derived 'castor oil' may get its name from its use as a more easily cultivated substitute for the scarce castoreum.


Detail of a miniature of a beaver, throwing his testicles to a hunter; from a bestiary, England, first half of the 12th century, Stowe MS 1067, f. 2v.

While the real-life beaver did not practise the strategy which the bestiaries describe, the threat posed by hunters was emphatically not a fiction. By the end of the Middle Ages, the beaver had been hunted to extinction in Britain, a practice driven by desire not only for its castoreum, but for its meat and fur. Overhunting continued into modern times, so that the Eurasian beaver is now an endangered species. Recent reintroduction efforts have enjoyed some success, and in 2009 a handful of beavers were released into the wild in Scotland – the first British beavers since before 1600! In light of this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that medieval illustrators would so consistently depict beavers as prey.


Miniature of a beaver who has been down this road before, showing his pursuer that the hunt is fruitless without a prize; from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 102r. This manuscript has been fully digitised, and is profiled in greater depth in a recent post.

Nicole Eddy

05 November 2012

Beautiful Contraband: The Queen Mary Psalter

We are thrilled to announce the long-awaited upload of the Queen Mary Psalter to our Digitised Manuscripts site (click here for the full manuscript).  We discussed the Psalter last year in our post Rival Queens, Precious Books, but here is a bit of a recap...


Miniature of the Crucifixion, with eight niches occupied by male figures, with an historiated initial 'A'(d), with a pope, king, bishop and two others kneeling before an altar, with a bas-de-page scene of Christina cast into the sea and rescued by angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 256v


The Psalter is named, as you might imagine, for Queen Mary Tudor (1516 - 1558), daughter of King Henry VIII, but the manuscript was not made for her - in fact, it was produced nearly 200 years before Mary's birth.  The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320.  Some scholars argue that it was made for Isabella of France (1295 - 1358), Queen of England and consort of Edward II, but unfortunately there is no certainty about this point.  The Psalter was certainly created for an aristocratic patron, and possibly a royal one, but the lack of any colophon or coats of arms in the manuscript means that it has been impossible to conclusively link it to any original owner. 



Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 67v


More is known about the manuscript itself, which was put together with an enormous amount of care.  The Psalter opens with a unique cycle of Old Testament miniatures, which details events from the Fall of Lucifer to the death of Solomon and is accompanied by an Anglo-Norman commentary found nowhere else; it was probably commissioned particularly for this manuscript. This is followed by a calendar, the Psalter (Book of Psalms) proper, Canticles, and Litany, and virtually all of the manuscript is in the hand of one scribe.



Miniature of Christ in the Temple speaking to the doctors, with the Virgin and Joseph behind, and six niches with prophets, accompanying the text of Psalm 52, with a bas-de-page scene of a mounted man and two mounted women hawking, with a man on foot holding a lure, and a hawk attacking a duck, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 151r


The layout of the text was meticulously planned to fit almost seamlessly with the nearly unparalleled program of decoration in the Psalter.  The sheer number of images throughout are staggering; there are 223 Old Testament images, 24 calendar scenes, 104 half- or full-page miniatures, 23 historiated initials, and 464 marginal or bas-de-page drawings.  Most remarkably, every image in the manuscript was produced by a single highly-skilled artist, now known as the Queen Mary Master.

We know very little about where the Queen Mary Psalter was during the first two centuries of its existence.  By the early 1550s it had come into the hands of Henry Manners, the 2nd earl of Rutland (1526 - 1563), who as a devout Protestant was arrested by Mary in May of 1553, shortly after she took the throne.  A much-erased note on f. 84r reads:  'This boke was sume tyme [under erasure: the Erle of Rutelands], and it was his wil / that it shulde by successioun all way / go to the [under erasure: lande of Ruteland] or to / [partially erased: him that linyally succedis by reson / of inheritaunce in the seide lande'].




It is uncertain what happened to the Psalter after Rutland's arrest, but in October of 1553 it was seized by an eagle-eyed and opportunistic customs officer named Baldwin Smith; there presumably had been an attempt to remove the manuscript from England.  Smith inscribed his name and the circumstances of this seizure at the end of the manuscript (see f. 319v) and then presented it as a gift to Queen Mary.  Mary clearly valued the Psalter very highly; she had it rebound to include the pomegranate device that she had inherited from her mother (see above, now much worn), and there is some evidence to suggest that she used it in her personal devotions. 

If you would like more information about the Queen Mary Psalter, it is among those manuscripts featured in the Royal app, which is still available for download.  We hope that you enjoy paging through this treasure on Digitised Manuscripts (online here); a few of our favourite images are below.



Miniature of God the Creator holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 1v



Detail of a miniature of two centaurs with bows, aiming their arrows at nearby birds (for the zodiac sign Sagittarius), from a calendar page for November, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 82r



Detail of a miniature of the three Magi before Herod, with a bas-de-page scene of a bear on a chain springing at a woman, while a man is whipping him, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 131r



Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two hybrid grotesques (each half-fish), with shields and lances, jousting with one another in the ocean, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 143v

- Sarah J Biggs

01 November 2012

A Calendar Page for November 2012

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

Add 18852 ff. 11v-12

Calendar pages for November, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 11v-12

A common scene for November calendars is the fattening of pigs for the winter.  The page on the left shows a typical example, with a peasant knocking acorns down from trees to feed a group of hungry animals, while a man on the right seems to be trying to coax a less-eager pig to eat.  On the right is a market square, bordered by tall buildings (including perhaps a church) and watched over by a centaur-archer, the traditional depiction for Sagittarius.  In the square a group of men (and a single nun, strangely enough) are engaged in the sale of cattle and pigs.