Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from December 2012

28 December 2012

The Conservation of Codex Alexandrinus

The British Library is committed to making available online as many of its medieval manuscripts as possible. But to do so requires considerable work behind the scenes, not least on the part of our dedicated team of conservators. We recently published to our Digitised Manuscripts site images of the whole of the New Testament portion of Codex Alexandrinus, the oldest complete Bible; and here is described the background to that achievement.

Con FM 01

Codex Alexandrinus is currently bound in 4 separate volumes. They retain part of the leather cover that was made when the manuscript was donated to King Charles I (1625-1649), but were probably rebound sometime between the 19th and 20th century. The manuscript is written in iron gall ink on parchment. The quality of the parchment substrate is superb: it is extremely thin, comparable to the parchment used in the making of Codex Sinaiticus, another early Bible digitised in recent years by the British Library and its partners.

In the case of Codex Alexandrinus, the opening of the manuscript was heavily compromised by the last re-binding, which jeopardised our ability to photograph properly each page in its entirety. Bound books are very complex structures: they are made of many different materials and the interaction between the writing support and the mechanics of the sewing structure is vital to their survival. Unfortunately, it had been the practice in recent centuries to attach too-heavy spine linings (made of layers of stiff paper and weak fabric) to the back of book blocks, which in many cases has only served to compromise their opening. This was found to be the case when Codex Alexandrinus was examined prior to digitisation.

The first requirement was to reach the back of the book block, which entailed removal of the cover. Next, the parchment book block was gently cleaned by removing the different layers of unsuitable materials, releasing the pressure on the folds of individual sections, and improving considerably the opening of the manuscript. A new reinforcement made of archival suitable materials was then placed onto the spine to support the opening of the book, and to increase the strength of the connection between the book block and the cover. Finally, the cover was re-adhered to this volume of Codex Alexandrinus. By doing this, the manuscript could be opened sufficiently to image its pages.

The digitisation process took two days, and was strictly monitored by a conservator and a curator, ensuring that each page was reproduced in the best possible way without in any way endangering the manuscript. We hope that you enjoy the results!

Flavio Marzo, Conservation Studio Manager for the Qatar Digitisation Project at the British Library

25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

The British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best in the new year!


Detail of a miniature of the Nativity, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410, Additional MS 18850, f. 65r

K062884 Royal 19 C. vi f. 131r

Detail of a miniature of Greeks making merry (perhaps at a New Year's celebration?), from Xenophon, France, c. 1506, Royal MS 19 C. vi, f. 131r

24 December 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus


St Nicholas: not always jolly; detail of a miniature of St Nicholas, identifiable by his three bags of gold and bishop's regalia; from Regola della Compagnia di S. Maria della pietà di Firenze, Italy (Florence), 2nd half of the 15th century, Harley MS 3547, f. 1r.

Jolly old St Nick, in his guise as a red-suited traveller through chimneys, is a figure of modern myth and pop culture, and medieval imagery of St Nicholas has very little in common with our modern Santa Claus. The historical Nicholas, about whom very little is known with certainty, was a 4th-century bishop of Myra, a town in Lycia, in modern-day Turkey. He is the patron saint of both Russia and Greece, and was a widely popular saint throughout medieval Europe. His feast day on 6 December has no doubt encouraged the association with Christmas.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas; from the Melisende Psalter, Jerusalem, 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 209r.

Setting aside the scanty historical record, it is in the colourful legends surrounding the saint's miracles that manuscript illuminators found their greatest inspiration. The final pages of the stunning Queen Mary Psalter are devoted to images from the life of St Nicholas, including a story of his precocious piety. Asceticism was highly valued in medieval spirituality, and Nicholas adopted such practices from birth. As an infant, he was said to have astonished his parents by fasting and refusing his mother's breast, limiting himself to only two abstemious meals per week. Proof positive he was destined for great things!


Miniature of an infant St Nicholas, refusing his mother's breast; from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 315r.

Perhaps the best-known story has also given rise to his principal identifying attribute, three small bags of gold. Nicholas himself was well-off, coming from a wealthy family. But one of his neighbours, a nobleman fallen on hard times, had three unmarried daughters he could no longer afford to support. The daughters were considering turning to prostitution in order to put food on the table. Nicholas wanted to help the family, and so for each of the three daughters, he crept by the house at night while the family slept and tossed a parcel of gold in the window – the foundational Secret Santa! The poor man was able to use the money as a dowry for the girls, so that they were married and provided for.


Detail of an historiated initial 'M' of St Nicholas passing gold through the window to the poor man and his three daughters; from Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 144r.

In addition to his generosity, Nicholas was also revered as a patron of children, providing some of the strongest connections between the medieval saint and the modern St Nick. In another famous story, Nicholas performed a miracle to save the life of three boys. The children had been murdered by a wicked butcher, who concealed their bodies by cutting them up and throwing the remains into a tub he used for curing meat. Nicholas not only found them there, he was able to restore the dismembered boys to life, and the image of the bishop standing over the three now-healed children standing up from the tub is a popular subject for illustration.


Detail of a miniature of St Nicholas with the three boys in the tub; from Iacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, translated into French by Jean de Vignay, France (Paris), 1382, Royal MS 19 B. xvii, f. 14r.

Nicole Eddy

22 December 2012

Christmas Presents for Manuscript Lovers

It's been another hectic year in the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section. We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog (and continue to do so), and that you derive great pleasure from seeing some of the manuscripts that we look after.

In case you are still chasing last-minute Christmas gifts for manuscript lovers, here is a small selection of items relating to our collections.

Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance, by Andrea Clarke (British Library, 2011), priced £10.


Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, edited by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden & Kathleen Doyle (British Library, 2011), the catalogue of our hugely successful Royal exhibition in 2011-12, priced £40.


Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths, by Claire Breay (British Library, 2011), priced £7.95.


Beowulf: Treasures in Focus, by Julian Harrison (British Library, 2009), priced £3.99.


21 December 2012

A Royal Gift for Christmas

Cold, breezy weather, rain and snow, and the onset of darkness at 3pm, all herald that winter has arrived. To brighten up your days, we have recently put online one of the most lavishly illuminated prayerbooks to survive from the Middle Ages, the Book of Hours of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford.

18850, f 65
The Nativity in the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 65r.

Our treat for you to enjoy during these long, dark days was indeed a royal gift for Christmas. On 24 December 1430, Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, presented what is now known as the Bedford Hours (British Library Additional MS 18850) with her husband’s consent to her nephew, the 8-year-old Henry VI. The newly-crowned king of England was enjoying his Christmas with the ducal couple in their residence at Rouen, awaiting his French coronation in Paris. A page-long memorandum note inserted in the book (below) by the royal physician John Somerset commemorates this event.

Bedford note
Memorandum added to the Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256r.

For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was not as obvious an occasion for gift-giving as it is now. By far more popular was the Roman-rooted, festive exchange of presents on New Year’s Day, known in France as etrennes (perhaps from the Roman goddess Strena, whose feast was celebrated on 1 January). At the turn of the 15th century large sums of money were spent on the etrennes, which became, especially in France and Burgundy, a lavish courtly ritual, with princes like Anne’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, spending on average over 6% of his yearly budget on New Year’s presents. The duchess’s gift may well have emulated this relatively well-established tradition.

The manuscript she offered to Henry was a truly royal gift. Its 38 large miniatures and over 1,200 marginal roundels illustrating its prayers were painted by the best Parisian workshops of the time. The prayerbook was not made with Henry in mind, however. Its royal splendour was a recycled one. The work on the manuscript’s fabulous decoration may have started as early as the 1410s and another royal prince may have been its intended recipient, perhaps the early-deceased dauphin, Louis, duke of Guyenne.

Bedford hours
Portrait of John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256v.

John, duke of Bedford, acquired the unfinished manuscript sometime after 1422. Following the deaths of his brother Henry V and the English king’s adoptive father, Charles VI of France, John became Regent of France on behalf of the baby King Henry VI. Soon after, in 1423, the duke married Anne of Burgundy in a powerful political match designed to ensure the stability of English rule in France. Two monumental portraits of the ducal couple in prayer before their patron saints were inserted together with their omnipresent heraldic devices and mottos (above and below), and several other scenes.

18850 f 257v
Portrait of Anne of Burgundy, duchess of Bedford, before St Anne: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 257v.

Among images added to the volume at that time was yet another remainder of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The last two leaves of the manuscript tell the story of the heavenly origin of the French royal coat of arms in picture and verse (below). The miniature depicts God sending his angel with a fleur-de-lis banner to the hermit of Joyenval, who then hands it over to Queen Clothilda. The next scene takes place in the royal palace. The queen presents the fleur-de-lis, on a shield, to Clovis, her husband and the first Christian king of France.

18850 f 288v
The legend of the Fleur-de-lis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Clothilda like Anne was a Burgundian princess and it is not accidental that she is assisted here by a herald wearing a hat of green, white and black, the livery colours of the dukes of Burgundy, and that the gate to her palace bears the escutcheon of the lion rampant of Flanders. Clothilda’s role in the legend underlines the traditional Burgundian support to the French crown. A similar role was also expected from Anne, the Regent’s consort.

Detail 1Clothilda presenting the Fleur-de-lis arms to Clovis: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

Detail 2
The arms of Flanders over the palace gate: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 288v.

The legend of the fleurs-de-lis was popular in early-15th-century France. In December 1430, it received a new meaning, directly addressing Henry VI who was about to receive the French crown. A few months later, the legend of Clovis’s miraculous gift was performed as one of the tableaux vivants during Henry VI’s ceremonial entry to Paris. Although it is not certain whether Bedford had his prayerbook enhanced with new images as a wedding gift for his bride, or as a pre-coronation present to his nephew, in December 1430 the ducal Christmas gift was particularly well-suited for the future king of France.

19 December 2012

Can Deer Fly? Rudolph Goes Medieval


Who will guide my sleigh tonight?: an artist's reconstruction of Cervus rhinorubeus, the elusive red-nosed deer; from (Pseudo-?) Sextus Placitus, Liber medicinae ex animalibus, the Netherlands (Mosan region) or England (?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 1585, f. 62v.

A series of posts on this blog has highlighted animals in medieval manuscripts, taking a closer look at beavers, weasels, hedgehogs and more.  In honour of the festive season, what could be more appropriate than a red-nosed reindeer?  Rudolph himself may be a product of the 20th century, but some of his distant cousins make frequent appearances in manuscripts, where the stag is both a common heraldic device and a frequent subject in medieval bestiaries.


Detail of a miniature of a stag, drawing a snake out of its burrow with the breath from his nostrils; from a bestiary, England, c. 1200-1210, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 23r.

The stag is frequently depicted as the inveterate enemy of the snake.  The deer will aggressively pursue his prey, holding water in his mouth and using it to flood the snake's burrow.  When the serpent is driven out, the stag tramples it underfoot.  In other bestiaries, the stag sucks the snake out of its hole with his breath and eats it.  The viper is a dangerous meal, however, and the snake's venom poisons the deer.  But the stag has a natural defence, mitigating the toxin's effect by drinking large quantities of water.  In either case, the stag represents Christ, overcoming the poisonous devil by the pure and sustaining water of wisdom.  Other Christological imagery is tied up with the yearly shedding of the stag's antlers, which is taken as symbolic of resurrection and renewal of life.


Detail of a miniature of a stag; from Bartholomaeus Minus de Senis, Tractatus de herbis, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280-c. 1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 71r.

Alexander the Great's military reputation fascinated medieval readers, and his conquests in India occasioned many stories about strange people and animals in exotic locales.  He is also frequently depicted as sharing with his tutor Aristotle a passion for natural history, exploring the natural world with an airship carried by griffons and even a proto-submarine.  Alexander can also be counted as a pioneer in the field of biological research, studying deer with an animal tagging catch-and-release program that rivals the methods of modern field researchers.  Alexander ordered several deer to be captured and fitted out with special collars.  A hundred years later, when the animals were recaptured, these collars proved that they were the same individuals – still alive after a whole century!  Bestiary accounts cited this story as proof of the deer's incredibly long lifespan, attributed by the medieval writers to their diet of poisonous snakes, which had the counterintuitive effect of actually renewing youth and good health.


Cheers!: detail of a miniature of a stag, as well as a satyr enjoying a festive libation; from an astronomical text, Germany or Austria, 1491, Arundel MS 299, f. 4v.

With stories like these, and with, moreover, the importance of the stag both as a symbol and as a game animal for the wealthy, it is no surprise that the animals appear frequently in manuscripts – and not just bestiaries or medical books.  Stags could be both decoration and fanciful marginal grotesque.  Above, an astronomical text pairs the stag with a convivial satyr, looking like a holiday party guest, with his drinking cup raised aloft.  The satyr and stag were treated consecutively in the normal bestiary order, and the image here alludes to that tradition.  And finally, below, proof positive that while there is as yet no evidence of a medieval Rudolph, flying reindeer – or at any rate winged stags – are very much attested.  Blitzen, can that be you?


What to my wondering eyes does appear?  Detail of an imaginative marginal grotesque, a winged deer about to take flight; from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Nicole Eddy

17 December 2012

New Testament from Oldest Complete Bible Available Online

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f005vDetailDetail of the colophon at the end of Matthew: it reads 'Εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ματθαῖον', literally 'Gospel according to Matthew'; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 5v.

The New Testament volume from one of the British Library’s most valuable treasures, Codex Alexandrinus, has been made available online for the first time on the Library’s website. Codex Alexandrinus, which translates simply as ‘the book from Alexandria’, dates from the 5th century and is the most complete Bible preserved from early Christian times. The New Testament volume of this unique book has been digitised in full as part of a larger British Library project to transform access to some of its oldest and most valuable handwritten books.

The Codex is one of the three earliest known surviving Greek Bibles: the others are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Between them, these three manuscripts are the most important witnesses for the full text of the Greek New Testament. Codex Alexandrinus is particularly important, since it is the oldest example of what is known as the Byzantine text of the New Testament, the wording of which became the dominant form in Greek Christianity from the 7th century down to today. As well as the 27 books of the New Testament, it also includes two other texts important to early Christians, a letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, written at the end of the 1st century, and a second slightly later homily attributed to Clement. Its use of stylized decoration means it is also of great importance for the history of early Christian art.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f039vPage containing Luke 22:42-23:3, but without verses 22:43-44; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 39v.

The Codex is named after the capital of Greek Egypt, Alexandria, to which it was brought at the beginning of the 14th century. It was presented to King Charles I in 1627, and its arrival in Britain was a revelation to biblical scholars, not least for its important divergences from the text of the recently published King James Version of 1611. For example, Codex Alexandrinus omits the so-called ‘Holy Sweat’ passage (Luke 22:43-44): ‘And there appeared an angel unto him [Jesus] from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ (King James Version). The book passed into national ownership with the donation of the Old Royal Library by George II in 1757.

The digitisation of Codex Alexandrinus complements the full digital coverage of Codex Sinaiticus made available in 2009 by the British Library as a result of an international collaborative project. Codex Alexandrinus joins over 800 other medieval manuscripts now available in full online on the Library’s website where they can be studied in great detail by anyone, anywhere in the world.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f041vPage containing Luke 24:32-53 and the colophon at the end of Luke; from Codex Alexandrinus, vol. 4, 5th century, Eastern Mediterranean, Royal MS 1 D. viii, f. 41v.

14 December 2012

Camelot: The Prequel

Add_ms_12228_f068rDetail of a miniature of the hero, Meliadus, bearing the arms of Naples, with the arms of Jerusalem close by, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 68r

The legends of King Arthur and his court at Camelot, the quest for the Holy Grail and the related tale of Tristan and Isolde were probably as popular as Star Wars in most of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and maybe that is why they also needed a 'prequel'! In the mid-13th century the core Arthurian stories were written down as a vast prose epic in French, known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, which was widely circulated for the entertainment of royalty and aristocrats. At about the same time an author who called himself Hélie de Boron, produced a companion work or prequel to the tales of Arthur, Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table. It fills in some of the gaps in the story but is mainly concerned with the deeds of the fathers of the well-known heroes: Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur, Meliadus, father of Tristan, Lac, father of Erec and the Bon Chevalier sans Peur, father of Dinadan. The most important characters are Meliadus, father of Tristan and his companion Guiron, who are involved in a series of seemingly random adventures in which the other characters appear from time to time. In the earliest copies, the work is called Palamedes, after the Saracen knight who was Tristan's challenger, but later versions are named Guiron le Courtois (or Meliadus if they contain only the first part). 


Add_ms_12228_ff170v-171rMiniatures from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, ff. 170v-171r

The British Library has a beautifully illustrated Italian manuscript, Additional MS 12228, which contains the prologue and most of the first part, Meliadus, ending abruptly in the middle of a sentence. Many the pages are written only in the upper half, while the lower half is filled with colourful scenes of knights, castles and tournaments. It was probably made for Louis de Tarente, King of Naples (r. 1352, d. 1362), as his arms are in the background of several miniatures. The first large miniature has a king enthroned with a knot above him, representing the 'Nodo' - the Italian order of knighthood founded by Louis.


Add_ms_12228_f004rMiniature of a king enthroned below the 'Nodo', from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 4r


On some pages there are only outline sketches (see below) and it appears that various artists at different times have worked on adding colours and completing them, while on some pages the space has not been filled at all. In parts the colours are worn and so is the text, though in modern times someone has written over parts which had been rubbed away.


Add_ms_12228_f151vFolio with unfinished miniature in outline, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 151v

In the prologue the author claims to be Hélie de Boron, companion at arms of Robert, who wrote the Grail legend, and says that his work is written for King Henry who he has already given him two castles. At the king's request he chooses the title Palamedes, after the most courteous knight at Arthur's court and concludes that courtesy is the main subject of his tale. The story itself begins with the Romans, at the time of Arthur's coronation, when Esclabor, father of Palamedes, is captive of the Emperor, and is sent to Britain. Many tales follow, including Meliodus' abduction of the Queen of Scotland and his subsequent captivity. The text is interrupted suddenly near the end of the first part, with the Chevalier sans Peur and Meliadus debating whether to support King Arthur in his battle against his enemy Claudas.


Detail of a miniature of two kings playing a board game, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 23r.


Among the treasures hidden in the pages of this beautiful book are two pictures of medieval games. Near the beginning, on f. 23 (above), two kings are depicted playing a board game and towards the end is one of the earliest pictures of a group of people playing cards – it shows King Meliadus and his followers amusing themselves while in captivity.


Add_ms_12228_f313v_detailDetail of a miniature of King Meliadus and his followers amusing themselves whilst in captivity, from Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, Italy (Naples?), 1352-1362, Additional MS 12228, f. 313v

As the images are damaged in places, particularly at the edges, and the gorgeous colours are wearing off, it is important that this manuscript is handled as little as possible, and so it has now been carefully photographed by specialists at the British Library and is fully available online on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts web pages as Additional MS 12228. So while the original is being carefully preserved, anyone is able to view the stunning images up close and read the words written in a distant time and place. Does that make Star Wars technology seem out of date? Let our readers decide!