Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from February 2013

25 February 2013

Crisp as a Poppadom

Fire is a constant hazard in libraries, and most collections of historic manuscripts have some burnt parchment. Certainly the British Library has its share, including parts of the Cotton collection. Most older manuscripts were written on parchment which, being animal skin, does not respond to heat and water like paper but becomes crisp and wavy, looking somewhat like a poppadom. When a manuscript reaches this stage, there is little conservators can do except house it carefully.


Royal MS 9 C X. One Royal manuscript has deliberately been left unconserved since the Ashburnham House fire (1731) to show the damage done to the collections housed there.

Fortunately, our ancestors knew how to preserve books. Many medieval manuscripts were originally bound in thick oak boards with clasps. When it became customary to store books upright, they were packed close on hardwood shelves. In these conditions, air circulation is limited (denying oxygen to the fire) and the dense materials diffuse heat. Surface charring inhibits the release of volatile gases, delaying combustion. Today we also rely on low oxygen systems to prevent fires.

Fragments XXXII
Cotton Fragments XXXII. Boxes of fragments remain from the 1731 fire; some attributable to specific manuscripts, others found loose in the containers that held the damaged manuscripts.

If parchment has been well made, most of the fats will have been removed from the skin by scraping, leaving a dense mat of collagen fibres which are then stretched flat to dry. When heated, collagen shows little change at first; then the fibres contract swiftly and irreversibly over a small temperature range of just a degree or two (called the shrinkage temperature).

Additional 22750 typical leaf
Additional MS 22750. Parchment leaf inlaid in paper. The contrast between the apparently undamaged area and the severely degraded part is very clear, showing the boundary of irreversible changes.

As fire takes hold in a library, a temperature gradient builds across the text-blocks, the centres remaining cooler. This explains the typical pattern of a leaf from a burnt book, the edges shrunken but the centre merely cockled (a response to uneven stresses, like gathering the edges of a piece of fabric). The transition marks the point at which the shrinkage temperature was reached

Tiberius D V
Cotton Tiberius D V. The text suddenly gets smaller, showing that the parchment has shrunk. The cuts were made during early repairs, so that the leaf could be flattened.

At the leaf edges, which are most exposed to heat, the collagen can be denatured to gelatine, becoming hard and brittle and sometimes forming a glassy exudation which seals the text-block. 

Otho A XIII Cotton Otho A XIII. Gelatinised parchment. The strips holding the fragment have caused staining and cover part of the text.

Of course, water was used to extinguish historic fires and this causes further damage to parchment. Too much moisture causes reversion to the memory of being animal skin and, unless it is dried under tension again, the parchment swells and cockles. Many books, undamaged by heat, were air-dried after the fire and show this kind of damage. Those that were not dried quickly enough may also be weakened and stained by mould.

Julius A II
Cotton Julius A II. This manuscript has only slight water damage (and possibly not from the fire), though there are indications that the margins were trimmed before rebinding. This was sometimes a “quick fix” to remove blackened edges where text was not compromised.

Early treatment was simply to soak the parchment in water to make it flexible and then stretch and press it. The heat-contracted edges which would not expand were often slashed between lines of text to allow flattening. Sir Humphry Davy (d. 1829) improved on this by suggesting a mixture of “spirits of wine” (alcohol) and water, and such azeotropic mixtures continued in use till very recently, as they allow a controlled application of moisture to rehydrate dry parchment. However, even this is now thought damaging, and cockled parchment will just be allowed to relax in a slightly humid atmosphere, before pressing. Other experiments to try to make the texts more readable have added to the parchment’s degradation.

Tiberius E VI
Cotton Tiberius E VI. An extreme example of cutting into a fragment of a Cotton manuscript in order to flatten it so it could be inlaid. It is also possible to see that the paper frame is starting to cockle as stresses readjust in the parchment fragment.

Typical fire damage leaves the text in the centre of the page readable, but the weak edges are easily broken by handling and it is imperative to protect them to prevent fragments becoming detached. It is estimated that the Beowulf text (Cotton Vitellius A XV) lost some 3000 letters before 1817. It and many other manuscripts were eventually treated by inlaying each leaf in paper, but the strips used to secure the parchment themselves covered more text. The adhesive seems to have been paste, which left stains and is now becoming brittle; the paper frames are degrading too, and often cockling under the pull of the parchment. Other early repair techniques used parchment infills, silk gauze or goldbeater’s skin.

Egerton 2745 f165r
Egerton 2745, f. 165r. Lamination is holding the fragments together and maintaining the relationship of the lines of text, but making it difficult to read. Retreatment is not an option because removing the laminate would cause further damage and the leaf is currently stable.

These methods helped to preserve the fire-damaged manuscripts, but the materials used are now aging. We have become much more cautious when treating parchment since realising that it may be far more degraded than it looks. Moisture can cause gelatinisation; too strong repair materials can pull on and split the weaker skin, adhesives must remain flexible. No wonder that our current emphasis is on sympathetic housing, to slow deterioration and give support to damaged leaves without the dangers of re-treatment.

Otho A XII
Cotton Otho A XII. An extremely damaged fragment, now housed in a melinex sleeve.

We are fortunate that fire-damaged parchment manuscripts can now be made available to readers through digitisation, avoiding the risks of further handling. Safe in controlled conditions, we are confident that even after heat, water and incautious early treatments, they will long survive.

Ann Tomalak, Conservation Officer, The British Library

22 February 2013

Images in the Public Domain

Just a reminder that images from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are now available under a Public Domain mark. This means that they are available for download and reuse, on condition that certain basic principles are observed: (1) please respect the creators; (2) please credit the source of the material; (3) please share knowledge where possible; (4) please consider the efforts of the British Library in preserving and making such works available, should they be used for commercial or other for-profit purposes.

A decorated initial word-panel containing a unicorn and a bear, from the Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch.
Initial word-panel Shir (song) inhabited by a unicorn and bear, in the "Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch" (Germany, 14th century): London, British Library, Add MS 15282, f. 296v.

That's the legal bit out of the way. You can search our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts by keyword, search for a particular manuscript, explore our virtual exhibitions (such as the Royal collection of manuscripts, French illuminated manuscripts and the medieval bestiary), and search our glossaries of terms used when describing illuminated manuscripts and Hebrew manuscripts. Just think -- a simple search for "unicorn" produces no fewer than 34 results, including manuscripts made in England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain and Switzerland. Maybe in time you'll even be able to download images of our infamous unicorn cookbook.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript in Greek, showing an illustration of a unicorn.
Miniature of a unicorn, in Philes, De natura animalium (France, 16th century): London, British Library, Burney MS 97, f. 18r.

Let us know how you're using our images, either by sending a comment (via the link at the foot of this post) or tweeting us @BLMedieval. A selection will be publicized in a future blog-post.

20 February 2013

Merlin: International Man of Mystery


Detail of a miniature of King Vortigern consulting his magicians while (in the background) construction moves forward on a castle with subsidence problems; from Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1, the Netherlands (Bruges), 1471-1483, Royal MS 15 E. IV, f. 93r

If you hear a knock at your door and open it to find a man in a tall pointy hat and a flowing white beard, 'Aha!' you might say, 'A wizard!'  From Gandalf to Dumbledore, fashion-conscious wizards take their cues from the style icon who embodies the must-have look for necromancers this (and every) season: Merlin.  Nor would the pointy hat have been unfamiliar to medieval audiences as a sign of the wearer's occult power.  Above, the British King Vortigern consults his magicians – mystical headgear clearly in evidence – about a little construction problem he is having.


Detail of a miniature of the young Merlin and his mother coming to appear before King Vortigern; from Wace, Roman de Brut (a verse epitome), England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 24r

It is one of the most frequently told stories about Merlin: King Vortigern was building a castle, but the structure kept falling down.  When he asked his court astrologers for advice, they offered a grim solution.  The king should mix the castle's mortar with human blood, taken from a boy with no father.  It is at this point that Merlin enters the story.  Despite our expectations of an elderly sage, in medieval texts, Merlin is equally likely to appear in a far different guise.  Merlin himself is the boy with no father, or at least no human father.  He was conceived when his virtuous mother was visited by a devil: the embodiment of supernatural, even diabolical power employed for good.


Merlin had a role in another famous construction project as well: the building of Stonehenge, or rather, its transportation from Ireland to Salisbury Plain; detail of a miniature of Merlin, here visually identified with the giants who were said to have originally erected the monument, disassembling the stone circle for transport; from Wace, Roman de Brut (a verse epitome), England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin was brought before Vortigern for his value as building materials, but he soon proved his worth as a magician of greater skill than the older astrologers.  The boy explained that the castle was built above two wrestling dragons, one white and one red.  These creatures represented the Britons and the invading Saxons, whose conflict would eventually bring down Vortigern's rule.   Workers dug beneath the castle's foundations, releasing the dragons, and construction moved forward.


Geoffrey of Monmouth attributed many propehcies to Merlin, with many allegorical beasts, of which the red and white dragons are only the most famous; that the initial 'S'(edente) here takes the form of a dragon is perhaps a deliberate allusion; from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Prophecies of Merlin, England (London), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 267r

This is a tale of Merlin's youth, an origin story about his first big success.  But Merlin often adopted a boyish appearance, even in stories about King Arthur, two generations after Vortigern.  Arthur's knights would encounter unlikely, unreliable-seeming people (young boys, elderly beggars) with wild predictions about future events, which they believed only on recognizing Merlin in disguise.


Detail of a miniature of Merlin, disguised as a young boy, appearing before King Arthur and his barons; from L'Estoire de Merlin, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add. MS 10292, f. 200v

In some stories, Merlin was even a strong warrior.  In his 'Life of Merlin', Geoffrey of Monmouth described the magician as a powerful king who, disenchanted with the horror of war, gave up his kingdom and fled into the forest to play his lyre and alarm people with his uncanny predictions.  Merlin's resentful sister, queen of a neighbouring kingdom, sought to discredit her brother.  She asked Merlin to foretell the deaths of three people.  Merlin predicted a fall, a hanging, and a drowning.  The trick was that all three were in fact the same boy, in disguise.  Merlin was proven correct, however, when the young man died in a freak accident, falling off a cliff, catching his foot in a tree on the way down, and hanging there to drown with his head in the river below.  Merlin, a chameleon himself, could see through another's disguise, and his prophecies were always reliable.


The robed and bearded figure in this image is not the wizard at all, but the clerical scribe Blaise, taking dictation from Merlin (shown here as a handsome young man) as the magician relates his adventures; from L'Estoire de Merlin, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add. MS 10292, f. 163v

Nicole Eddy

18 February 2013

The Tale of the Errant Archbishop


Initial 'Q'(ui) of St Thomas Becket, wearing the mitre of his rank as Archbishop, defrocking a priest for only knowing how to sing one form of the mass; the rubric below reads 'sein tomas le erceveske le suspendi' ('St Thomas the Archbishop suspended him'); from the De Brailes Hours, England (Oxford), c. 1240, Add. MS 49999, f. 45v.

Books of Hours, a common type of manuscript in the late Middle Ages, contain the cycle of Psalms and other prayers that would be recited for the monastic hours, at set times during the day.  They are tools for meditation, as well as for the recitation of the liturgy, and are often gloriously illustrated.  While the prayers in these manuscripts are not narrative, the pictures sometimes can be, and the stories that they tell can create a second 'text', a visible spur to pious contemplation layered alongside the aural experience of listening to the service.


Detail of an initial 'C'(once) of William de Brailes receiving a blessing from God; from the De Brailes Hours, England (Oxford), c. 1240, Add. MS 49999, f. 43r.

The De Brailes Hours (now fully available online!) is a very early example of a Book of Hours, and already shows some of the important characteristics of the form.  It is a small manuscript, only about the size of an open hand, a jewel sized for close examination and portability.  And its appearance is dominated by its many historiated initials on religious subjects.  The artist of these pictures is known, and has actually provided his idealized portrait.  Alongside the picture of a cleric at prayer, receiving a blessing from the hand of God reaching down from heaven, a small rubric in red ink (here partly obscured by the edge of the facing page) labels it as 'W de brailes qui me depeint' ('W[illiam] de Brailes who painted me').


Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, killed by Henry II's men-at-arms; the image is marred by a large X crossing it out, no doubt made after the Reformation, when it became politically dangerous to revere Becket as a symbol of ecclesiastical resistance to royal authority; from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincoln), 1325-1335, Add. MS 42130, f. 52r.

The Hours of the Virgin – the section of the manuscript with prayers specifically dedicated to honouring Mary – includes, near the end, images of Miracles of the Virgin, colourful tales about Mary's intervention on behalf of sinners.  One such story features a perhaps unlikely villain: St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on the orders of King Henry II.  In later years, Becket became a problematic figure.  The struggle between secular and ecclesiastical power encapsulated in his story made him a particular target for Henry VIII after the king broke with the Catholic church.  But in the Middle Ages, Becket was a very popular saint, and his tomb at Canterbury was an important shrine (as well as the destination for Geoffrey Chaucer and his fictional travelling companions).


Detail of an initial 'N'(isi) of the Virgin Mary giving St Thomas a hair shirt to wear; the rubric above reads 'nr dame vest un here a sceint tomas' ('Our Lady puts a hair shirt on St Thomas'); from the De Brailes Hours, England (Oxford), c. 1240, Add. MS 49999, f. 49r.

Here, however, Becket represents an ecclesiastical hierarchy at odds with a devout but unlettered piety.  There once was a priest, the story goes, who only knew one version of the mass, dedicated to Mary.  The Archbishop disapproved of such incompetence and ordered him defrocked, refusing to relent even when his unfortunate subordinate begged for mercy.  Finally, the priest prayed to his patroness.  Mary appeared to Becket, ordering him to wear a hair shirt under his clothes as a private penance.  Then she revealed her secret command to the priest, instructing him to take his knowledge to Becket as a sign of her favour – how could the priest know of the shirt if the Virgin herself had not told him?  In the end, we see a reversal of roles, with Becket, rather than the priest, the one begging forgiveness, as he reinstates his pious underling.  Even a saint sometimes goes astray!


Initial 'Q'(ui) of St Thomas begging for mercy after reinstating the priest, while the hand of God offers blessing; the rubric above reads 'scein tomas lu crie merci e le relest' ('St Thomas cries mercy of him and [he] forgives him'), inverting earlier images (not shown) of the priest kneeling before Thomas, with a rubric 'ne poet aver reles' ('He cannot have forgiveness'); from the De Brailes Hours, England (Oxford), c. 1240, Add. MS 49999, f. 55v.

Nicole Eddy

14 February 2013

Be My Valentine


Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r

Once you've picked out a Valentine's Day gift for your sweetheart, why not give yourself a Valentine's present, with a closer look at the Petit Livre d'Amour ('Little Book of Love')?  Over the weekend, we announced the availability of six new manuscripts as full digital reproductions on the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Among them, the Petit Livre d'Amour is an appropriate Valentine's Day celebration, having been a gift between lovers, from the author Pierre Sala (b. 1457, d. 1529) to his mistress Marguerite Builloud.


The manuscript's original, custom-made case, made of wood covered in leather; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955

References to the relationship between Pierre and Marguerite are all over the book.  The initials M and P appear often in decorative borders, and are even carved into the intricate patterns adorning the book's carrying case.  The small volume could be slipped inside this protective box for Marguerite to carry it with her.  The rings on the side of the box attached to chains, by which she could suspend it from her girdle.


Detail of a miniature of Pierre Sala dropping his heart into a daisy; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 6r

Inside, diminutive illustrations, filling the book's small pages, transform the object into a sumptuous jewel, while also illustrating the love between author and reader.  In one particularly striking picture, a man – representing Pierre Sala himself – drops his heart into the cup of a large, red-and-white flower.  The flower is a daisy, a 'marguerite' in French, and so an allegorical representation of Pierre's beloved.  Close inspection of Pierre's face in this miniature reveals hints of a plan for the picture that was never fully realized.  The man's face is unfinished, showing only the rough sketch of facial features to be added later.  The illuminator left the face blank so that another artist – most likely Jean Perréal, a friend of Pierre's – could complete the allegory with a likeness of Pierre himself.  We can imagine how this would have looked by referring to the larger, full-page portrait of Pierre that Perréal did provide, at the end of the volume.  What do you think – a candidate for most eligible bachelor, c. 1500?

Sorry, ladies -- he's taken!  Detail of a portrait of Pierre Sala, made by his friend Jean Perréal; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 17r

Across from each of the manuscript's miniatures is a brief love poem in French, of Pierre's own composition.  These poems participate in a lyric tradition lamenting love's hardships and uncertainties.  On the page facing the image of two women capturing winged hearts with a net (shown at the top of the post), we read a brief verse about fickle, flighty hearts: 'Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner' (two personification allegories) 'have stretched out their snares at the corner of the wood, until the best time for an unstable, flying heart to pass by there'.  The word 'heart' in the middle of the last line is not written out, but indicated with a little drawing.


A verse on flighty hearts: 'chiere amyable & cortoyse maniere / au coing du boys ont tendu leur pantiere / en atendant leure plus atreable / que par la passe <3 vollant peu estable'; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 12v

Other poems direct their critique, if still obscurely, toward the lover himself: 'I have no support but this branch, nor hope of having any other help, but by folly, I cut it, and so will fall under the water'.  These sweet words – and their elegant package – must have pleased Marguerite; their relationship prospered, and she and Pierre eventually married.


Disaster in 3...2...1...: detail of a miniature of a man cutting off the branch on which he is standing; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d'Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 15r

13 February 2013

Naked Came the Werewolf


Detail of a miniature of Dante conversing with Virgil (right) and Dante being attacked by a wolf representing Greed (left); from Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Italy (Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 2r

We have already taken a brief look at wolves as gluttonous threats to flocks and the enemies of sheepdogs.  But if wolves represent greed and savagery, they can also be savagery tamed.  When the retainers of the slain King Edmund searched the forest for his severed head, the king's sanctity (and natural dominion over man and beast) was demonstrated when a wild wolf did not desecrate the head, but protected it.


Detail of a miniature of the discovery of the head of St Edmund, guarded by a wolf; the head has called out to the searchers, crying 'Heer, heer, heer!'; from John Lydgate, Life of St Edmund and St Fremund, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 1461-c. 1475, Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

This is not to discount the threat of the wolf, however.  In one of the more bizarre bestiary stories, the reader is warned of the dangers of encountering wolves in the wild.  If you see the wolf before he sees you, you are safe.  But if the wolf catches sight of you unawares, you will be, not attacked, but instead rendered mute.  There is only one cure for this condition.  You must quickly take off all your clothes, throw them on the ground and trample them.  Then you must pick up two stones and bang them together to make a loud noise – only then will your power of speech be restored!  A valuable tip for public speakers struck dumb by stage fright.


Detail of a miniature of wolves and (below) the man they have struck dumb, effecting his cure by stripping out of his clothes and striking rocks together; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r

Stripping off clothes seems to be a recurring theme in stories about wolves, and even more in tales about werewolves. There, clothes symbolize civilization, cast aside to take on the appearance as well as the habits of the wolf.  Pliny's Natural History tells of a people who leave their clothes hanging in a tree and transform into wolves.  If, after nine years, they have abstained from eating human flesh, they can return, retrieve their clothes, and become human again.


Miniature of Pliny writing in his study, overlooking a vista that comprises the whole of creation, including land, sea and heavens, as well as animals and human habitation; from Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Italy (Rome), c. 1457-1458, Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

Marie de France tells a similar tale about Bisclavret, a knight with the power to change into a wolf by taking off his clothes.  But his unfaithful wife learned the secret and stole his clothes, trapping him in werewolf form.  While hunting, the king encountered his transformed retainer, who lay down before him and made a show of submission, convincing the king to adopt the loyal animal as a pet.  But when the knight's treacherous lady came to court one day, the usually placid wolf attacked her, biting off her nose.  Only then did the king realized the wolf's identity and give him back his clothes, changing him once more into a human being.


The first page of Bisclavret, beginning 'Quant de lais faire mentremet...', and headed by the added title 'bisclaueret'; from Marie de France, Lais, England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 978, f. 131v

Nor is Bisclavret the only werewolf to show signs of humanity.  An Irish story tells about a priest who became lost on the road and encountered a werewolf.  The wolf spoke to him, asking him to perform last rites for his dying wife (also a werewolf).  The priest complied, and the grateful werewolf then directed him on his way.  Was the priest right, the story wonders, to assume that the soul of a good Christian might reside in the cursed and savage form of a wolf?


The next time you see a wolf, therefore, remember the lessons of the werewolf.  There is only a thin separation between man and beast.  And always remember where you left your trousers!


Detail of a miniature of two werewolves: the cursed husband on the left, and the priest administering last rites to the dying wife on the right; from Gerald of Wales, Topographica Hibernica, England (perhaps Lincoln), c. 1196-1223, Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r

11 February 2013

Hwæt! Beowulf Online

The manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest poem in the Old English language, can now be viewed online for the first time. Made around the year 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), this manuscript committed to parchment a tale that (in some modern scholars' opinions) had been passed down for centuries, between generations of storytellers.

A detail from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing the opening words of the Old English poem.

The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

In its present state, the poem, named after its hero Beowulf, contains more than 3,000 lines, and divides conventionally into three comparatively equal sections: Beowulf's struggle with the monster, Grendel; the revenge of Grendel's mother; and Beowulf's final contest with a dragon, which was guarding a hoard of treasure. What marks out Beowulf is the gripping and highly developed story, and the richness of its language.

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing the passage in the Old English poem where Beowulf prepares for battle with Grendel.
The Beowulf-manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731, but much of its text remains readable. Here the poem recounts Beowulf's preparations for battle with Grendel: London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 147r.

Known sometimes as the "Nowell Codex", after its erstwhile owner Laurence Nowell (d. c. 1570), the Beowulf-manuscript entered the library of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), and still retains his pressmark of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (the 15th item on the 1st shelf of a bookpress named after the Roman emperor Vitellius). Cotton's collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1702, and formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753. Beowulf is now in the safe-keeping of the British Library; and we are hugely proud to be able to bring it to new audiences through our Digitised Manuscripts site.

More posts about the contents and history of the Beowulf-manuscript will be featured on this blog in the coming weeks.

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

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09 February 2013

Treasures Wonderful To Behold

Over the past few years, we've had great pleasure in making many of our books available to view in their entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Periodic announcements have been made on this blog, relating notably to the digitisation of our Greek and Royal manuscripts and to our Harley Science Project. But nothing quite compares to the new treasures now added to Digitised Manuscripts, encompassing the fields of art, literature and science.

And when we say "treasures", we really mean it! The six books in question are none other than (drumroll, please) the Harley Golden Gospels, the Silos Apocalypse, the Golf Book, the Petit Livre d'Amour ... and, um, two others. What were they again? Oh yes, remember now. Only Beowulf and Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook. How could we forget?

The Harley Golden Gospels (London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 71v).

Each of these six manuscripts is a true splendour, and has immense significance in its respective field, whether that be Anglo-Saxon literature, Carolingian or Flemish art, or Renaissance science and learning. On Digitised Manuscripts you'll be able to view every page in full and in colour, and to see the finer details using the deep zoom facility. You can read more about the chosen six in a special feature in the Financial Times Weekend magazine, published on 9 February 2013.

Harley Golden Gospels (Harley MS 2788): this beautiful gospelbook was made in early-9th-century Germany, perhaps at Aachen. The text is written entirely in gold ink, which even today glistens in the light; the sheer wealth of its decoration lends this manuscript its association with the Carolingian royal court.

Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV): contains the longest epic poem in Old English, and arguably one of the greatest works of world literature. The manuscript of Beowulf was made around the year AD 1000, and escaped destruction by fire in 1731: the scorch marks are still visible on its pages.

Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV. f. 132r).

Silos Apocalypse (Additional MS 11695): this commentary on the Apocalypse was made by monks at the Spanish abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, being started in AD 1091 and completed in 1109. The decoration leaps out from every page, remaining as vivid as the day it was painted.

The Silos Apocalypse (London, British Library, MS Additional 11695, f. 5v).

Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook (Arundel MS 263): compiled between the years c. 1478 and 1518, this notebook deals with many of the subjects close to Leonardo's heart: mechanics, geometry, hydraulics, optics, astronomy and architecture. Written in his characteristic mirror script, one scholar has described Leonardo's book as an "explosion of ideas".

Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook ("Codex Arundel") (London, British Library, MS Arundel 263, ff. 84v + 88r).

Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955): Pierre Sala (d. 1529), a valet de chambre of Louis XII of France, made his "Little Book of Love" for his mistress (and subsequently wife) Marguerite Builloud. Who could not have been bowled over by such a gift? The manuscript is still preserved in its original carrying case, inscribed with the letters P and M.

Petit Livre d'Amour (London, British Library, MS Stowe 955, f. 17r).

Golf Book (Additional MS 24098): famous for its depiction of a game resembling golf, this Book of Hours contains a series of miniatures attributable to Simon Bening (d. 1561), one of the greatest Flemish artists.

The Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 20v).

We are delighted to be able to share these six glorious manuscripts with our readers around the world; and we hope in turn that you share them with your friends too. You can also currently see Beowulf, the Harley Golden Gospels and select pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

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