Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from March 2013

29 March 2013

Medieval Anchoresses and the Ancrene Riwle

Sometime in the early 13th century, three laywomen, sisters of noble birth, had themselves enclosed for life in a small chamber in a church somewhere not far from Worcester. They were part of a spiritual movement which began with the desert fathers in the 4th century, whereby holy men and women, known as anchorites (or anchoresses), withdrew completely from the world, choosing a life of severity and solitude consisting of a daily ritual of liturgy and prayers. In a macabre ceremony that included the Office of the Dead, various prayers were said as someone was bricked up in a small room within a church, with only a small window to receive the sacrament and a slit affording a view of the altar. A small number of medieval churches survive with these cells or anchorholds intact, like at St James’s church in Shere, Surrey.

Image courtesy of

From the 13th to the 15th centuries, there are records of well over 100 people in England applying to their bishop to become anchorites, with the majority being women. However it would seem that withdrawal from the world did not necessarily mean solitude, as anchoresses had servants who brought them food and messages from outside and their advice and prayers were sought by local people, so that some became central figures in their communities.

We know much of this, and particularly about the three anchoresses in question, because in about 1230 a book of instruction was written for them, known as ‘Ancrene Riwle’. It was later adapted for other communities of anchorites under the title ‘Ancrene Wisse’. In all, there are 9 surviving manuscripts of the rule in Middle English, 4 in French and 4 in Latin: 15 in total. The British Library has four of the manuscripts in English, including the earliest copy of the original ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI), dating from 1225-30, which is now available in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI, f. 4r.

This is a book that has been made for daily use, written in an informal script, probably by a cleric, with decorated initials to make navigation around the text easier. A second scribe has made additions and notes in the margins shortly afterwards, and then much later a third scribe has modernised and annotated the text. It contains guidelines for daily prayers and instructions to the anchoress on how to regulate her senses and her inner life; it deals with sin and confession and finally divine love. Practical issues of clothing, food, keeping pets and employing servants are also covered.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Ancrene Wisse is the language in which it is written, a regional and seemingly archaic brand of English in a form that is standardised across a group of religious texts copied in the same area about 150 years after the Norman Conquest. Very little written English survives from this period, when Latin (and increasingly French) was the language of learning and culture. The vocabulary contains loan words from French (‘par charite’ for through charity) and Norse (‘feolahes’ for companions) and the style is colloquial, but the spelling is closer to the written form of English from before the Conquest. For this reason there have been many studies made by historical linguists and dialectologists of this text, the original and most famous by the distinguished Old English scholar and writer of Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien, who in 1929 first identified and described the language of the Ancrene Wisse in a Cambridge manuscript (Corpus Christi College MS 402), also from the early 13th century.

London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI, f. 146r

The British Library has three other manuscripts of the work, two from the same period, 1225-1250, and also in the Cotton collection, one from Worcestershire and one from Cheshire. The second has been adapted and contains pronouns which suggest it may have been for a male audience. Thirdly, a later version attributed to the 15th-century preacher, William Lichfield, is in the Royal collection: Royal MS 8 C I.

27 March 2013

What's in Our Treasures Gallery?

Queen Emma and King Cnut at the altar of the New Minster, Winchester, England, 11th century: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r.

Visitors to the British Library at St Pancras can often see a wide range of books and manuscripts in our Treasures Gallery, ranging from Shakespeare to the Beatles. In the exhibition cases devoted to medieval manuscripts you can currently view several of our greatest Anglo-Saxon books, including the New Minster Liber Vitae (see here for a post about the equivalent book from Durham Cathedral) and the foundation charter of the same abbey. You can already see both items (the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, and the New Minster foundation charter, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII) on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The frontispiece of the New Minster charter, England, c. 966: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v.

Meanwhile, currently on display in the exhibition cases devoted to medieval literature is the unique manuscript of Beowulf. Made around the year AD 1000, this manuscript contains not only the sole surviving copy of Beowulf, the longest epic poem in the Old English language, but also the texts of Judith, the Marvels of the East, and the letter of Alexander to Aristotle.

A typical page from the Beowulf manuscript, England, c. 1000, which was damaged by fire in 1731: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 176r.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, is open 7 days a week, and is free to visit. We regret that on occasion items have to be removed temporarily for use in our Reading Rooms; and we also operate a rotation policy, because many of the oldest and most fragile items in our collections cannot be kept on display for indefinite periods.

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25 March 2013

The Mystery of the Hours of Joanna the Mad


Miniature of St Luke painting the Virgin and Child, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 12v


Our recent on-line publication of the fabulous Hours illuminated by a pair of Ghent artists, the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian, prompted me to have a closer look at this manuscript associated with my famous namesake (Additional MS 35313; see here for the fully-digitised manuscript). With its double opening of full-page miniatures preceding prayers for each canonical hour and the profusion of gold and colours, the manuscript was fit for royal eyes, but was it really made for the mad Castilian Queen Joanna? The evidence is somewhat circumstantial. The presence of two Saint Johns, the Evangelist and the Baptist in the Calendar, Litany and Suffrages, Joanna’s natural patrons (the name Joanna is a female version of the name John) is prominent but hardly exceptional.



Detail of a miniature of St John the Evangelist, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 211v



Detail of a miniature of St John the Baptist, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 212v


It is the inclusion of a number of Spanish saints in the Litany that situates the Hours among books commissioned for or by members of the Spanish court. The saints' list includes the two early Christian martyrs Emeterius and Celedonius (see below), venerated at the royal foundation at Santander. Among the confessors, there are two Visigothic bishops, Ildephonsus of Toledo and Isidore of Seville, and a saint hardly venerated outside the Iberian Peninsula, St Adelelmus of Burgos, who replaced the Mozarabic rite in Léon and Castile with the Roman liturgy. Finally, among the virgins are included St Marina and St Quiteria who, according to a Portuguese legend, were sisters from Bayona (Pontevedra). But is it a proof of Joanna's ownership of the book?



Detail of a list of saints in the Litany, including Emeterius and Celedonius, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 150r


The manuscript includes one more piece of evidence that makes this hypothesis possible, but this time the evidence is iconographic. The Hours of the Dead opens with an unusual image (see below). The illustration of the encounter between the Three Living and the Three Dead, a moralizing tale built around a popular late-medieval theme of the memento mori ('Be mindful of death', or more commonly, 'Remember you will die'), features a woman on horseback chased by skeletons armed with long arrows. The woman holds a hawk on her arm and two greyhounds run alongside her horse, suggesting that the attack takes place during a hunt.



Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (Joanna the Mad), southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 158v


The miniature has a likely model in the Book of Hours that once belonged to Mary of Burgundy and her husband Archduke Maximilian (now Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett MS 78 B 12, f. 220v). Elfried Bok, a German scholar of the Netherlandish art, was the first to notice that the female rider in the Berlin Hours might be Mary herself (her initials 'MM' are on her horse's harness), and that the miniature, which was a later insertion, might refer to her sudden death after a riding accident whilst falconing with her husband in 1482.

Another possibility is however even more attractive. The Dowager Princess of Asturias might have commissioned the book after her return to the Netherlands in 1500 as a gift to her Spanish sister-in-law Joanna of Castile. Joanna, sister of Margaret's deceased husband John, married Margaret's brother Philip I, known as the Handsome, the ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands, in another political match. Joanna was Spanish and her devotion to native saints would explain their presence in the litany. On the other hand, the striking allusion to Mary of Burgundy’s tragic accident in the Hours of the Dead would have appeal to her husband's family memory.

 - Joanna Fronska

22 March 2013

"Written in Troublous Times": The Wessex Gospels

Royal MS 1 A XIV, known as the Wessex Gospels, is a small book of the 12th century containing a translation of the four gospels into the West Saxon dialect of Old English. It is written in what has been described as a ‘rough, untidy’ hand by the famous Anglo-Saxon paleographer, Neil Ker (d. 1982), and has very little decoration. At the beginning of each Gospel is an initial in red or green with rough decoration in the contrasting colour, and two-line initials mark new chapters.

This English version of the Gospels is the earliest translation into the English vernacular, apart from the glosses in Latin gospel books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, and it survives in 8 copies from this period. Royal 1 A XIV must have been copied directly or indirectly from a manuscript in the Bodleian library at Oxford, Bodley MS 441, as the same passages have been omitted from both.

Royal_ms_1_a_xiv_f086r Text page from Luke’s Gospel (London, British Library, MS Royal 1 A XIV, f. 86r).

According to Walter Skeat (d. 1912), the great Old English scholar of the 19th century, this book ‘gives the impression of having been written in troublous times, when the object was rather to have a copy for ready use than to spend time in elaborating it’. Based on this impression, he suggests that Royal 1 A XIV may have been copied during the troubled reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), though there is no evidence for this assertion. It is certainly a workaday version of the Gospels and has been well-used, judging from the well-worn edges. There are frequent corrections and additions, as seen in the page above (f. 86r) where the word þan has been inserted above line 7, and on the following line where the darker ink shows two erasures and corrections by the scribe.

Royal_ms_1_a_xiv_f003r Opening page of Mark’s Gospel (London, British Library, MS Royal 1 A XIV, f. 3r).

The first page of this manuscript provides many clues about its history. At the top is the pressmark of the Benedictine cathedral priory at Christ Church, Canterbury, ‘D[istinctio] xvi Gra[dus] iiii’, so it was in the medieval library of the abbey, and was copied either there or in the area as it contains some Kentish spellings (for example ‘gefeyld’ for ‘gefyld’ fulfilled). The title written at the top of the page, ‘Text[us] iv evangelior[um] anglice’, is reproduced in the 14th-century catalogue of the Christ Church library, but at the Reformation this book was one of many acquired from religious houses by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1556), whose name is written at the top of the page.

The Wessex Gospels next came into the hands of a noted collector of manuscripts, John Lumley (d. 1609) (his name is inscribed in the lower margin), who was involved in a conspiracy with Mary Queen of Scots, known as the Ridolfi Plot. Lumley forfeited his ancestral home and in unknown circumstances his collection of manuscripts passed to Henry Frederick, the eldest son of James I (d. 1612). The dashing, popular Prince of Wales was also a collector of art and books, and when he died at only 18 his manuscript collection became part of the Royal library. Now housed at the British Library, the Wessex Gospels has been fully digitised so that every page is accessible to view in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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20 March 2013

British Library Manuscripts Featured in Toronto Exhibition

Regular readers will recall that three British Library manuscripts went on loan to the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, for an exhibition entitled Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350. We are delighted to announce that the same works have been loaned to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (the AGO), as part of its exhibition Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art. This exhibition opened on 16 March, and runs until 16 June 2013. As Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO, remarks, 'This exhibition and the programming around it allow us to look at one of the most crucial periods in Western art history with fresh eyes. We invite visitors to view these seminal works through a contemporary lens, relating the issues of Florentine society at the dawn of the Renaissance to those of our modern lives.'

Royal_ms_6_e_ix_f008v Royal_ms_6_e_ix_f009r
In Toronto, visitors will see The Cross on a Papal Throne and Christ Standing with a Banner (London, British LIbrary, MS Royal 6 E IX, ff. 8v-9r).

The fabulous Carmina regia, an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou (Royal MS 6 E IX), is featured in the exhibition, but with a different image than that previously seen in Los Angeles and  London (as part of the highly successful Royal Manuscripts exhibition held last year: see Praying to the King, our original post on the Carmina). The text may perhaps be attributed to Convenevole da Prato (c. 1270/75-1338), a professor of grammar and rhetoric most famous as Petrarch's teacher. In the address, the city of Prato beseeches the king to unite the Italian peninsula under his rule and restore the papacy to Rome. This was likely the presentation copy of the text, given to Robert of Anjou on behalf of the city of Prato.

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

The two manuscript leaves that were in the Getty exhibition are also transferring to Toronto. These were both originally part of a single manuscript: Additional 18196, f. 1, with scenes from the life of St Agnes, 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. 

All three loaned works were painted by Pacino di Buonaguida, who was active in Florence in the first half of the 14th century. Only one signed work of his is known: an altarpiece in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Other paintings and manuscripts are ascribed to him based on stylistic similarities to this work.

18 March 2013

The Durham Book of Life Online

As a general rule, most medieval manuscripts are the product of a single scribal campaign. There are of course exceptions, most notably books such as chronicles and cartularies which were sometimes added to over many generations. But the Durham Liber Vitae (Book of Life) is perhaps exceptional in having been updated over a period of some 700 years, from the 1st half of the 9th century to shortly before the dissolution of Durham Cathedral Priory in the 16th century. This book is one of the most recent additions to our Digitised Manuscripts site, and there you can view the literally thousands of names which adorn its pages, from the Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops to the monks of the time of Henry VIII.

The first page proper of the Durham Liber Vitae: the names are written in gold and silver ink (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 15r).


This page of the Durham Liber Vitae contains the date 1493 in the upper margin, and on the left commemorates William Richardson and his wife Christina (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 81r).

The Durham Book of Life was made the subject of a comprehensive edition and survey, edited by David Rollason and Lynda Rollason (London: The British Library, 2007). You can now view all the pages online, to gain some appreciation of the complex manner in which this book was put together, commemorating the names of all the members of the monastic community of Durham and its predecessors, together with lay benefactors and others associated in Durham's prayers. A Book of Life indeed.


A series of Gospel extracts precedes the Liber Vitae, in a 12th-century hand (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 4r).

The Durham Liber Vitae retains its 17th-century Cottonian binding, stained red (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII).

Are there other candidates for the book which was made over the longest period of time? We'd love to know -- tell us via Twitter @blmedieval or add a comment at the foot of this post.

14 March 2013

A Pauper's Bible Fit for a Prince


Miniature of Abner visiting King David; miniature of the Adoration of the Magi; the miniature of the Queen of Sheba presenting gifts to Solomon, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 3r


The Biblia pauperum, or 'Paupers' Bible' is a continuation of the tradition of picture Bibles, related to the earlier Bible moralisée (see Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 for examples)Images, rather than text, are the focus of the Biblia pauperum, and follow a fairly standard layout. At the centre is usually a scene from the New Testament, flanked on either side by an Old Testament scene related to it by typology.  Typology was a brand of Biblical exegesis which was extremely popular in the medieval era, and centered on the belief that people and events in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring or anticipating aspects of the life of Christ.  A common 'type' depicted in this period, for example, was that of Jonah; the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale were believed to prefigure Christ’s burial in the tomb prior to his resurrection (see below).



Miniature of Joseph's brothers deceiving Jacob about what happened to Joseph; miniature of the Deposition of Christ in the tomb; miniature of Jonah being thrown into the sea, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 19r


In the 15th century affordable versions of this text were created, printed and decorated with woodcuts; these were likely used by clergymen to instruct their largely illiterate congregations.  Despite the name, though, most early medieval Biblia pauperum were lavish and expensive productions, well beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. 



Miniature of David beheading Goliath with a sword; miniature of Christ's descend into Limbo (the Anastasis); miniature of Samson killing the lion, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 21r


Kings MS 5, a recent upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site, is one such manuscript.  Also known as the 'Golden Pauper's Bible', it was produced in the last years of the 14th century, probably in the court of Margaret of Cleves (c 1375-1411).  Margaret was the second wife of Albrecht I, Duke of Bavaria and Count of Holland, and their court in The Hague became a centre for art and scholarship. Kings MS 5 contains 31 scenes from the life of Christ, each accompanied by two Old Testament prefigurations and portraits of apostles and prophets.  Originally each long leaf was folded into three parts, separating the miniatures, so that the manuscript would have looked much like a normal codex, but it was later rebound into its present oblong arrangement.  Kings MS 5 is the only known surviving manuscript in this format, and is also unusual in having fully-painted miniatures rather than pen and wash illustrations.



Miniature of the Judgement of Solomon; miniature of the Last Judgement; miniature of David's order to kill the Amalekite, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 29r


The fully digitized manuscript is available here, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

12 March 2013

Hooray for Public Domain Images!

Recently we asked our readers how they have been using our public domain images. And we're extremely gratified by the many responses we have received, via Twitter (@blmedieval) and in the comments section at the end of the original blogpost. Here is a selection of your comments:

I do medieval recreation/reenactment, and I like to use the BL images as inspiration for my illuminated/calligraphed texts.

I recently published an article on medieval wood pasture management and was excited to be able to use manuscript images from the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as part of the analysis. An acknowledgement of the BL's service in providing the image was included in the endnote for each figure. Thanks so much for providing this service to scholars!

Detail of a miniature of men beating down acorns to feed their pigs, on a calendar page for November (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 81v).

I'm teaching a course on Arthurian literature, art and film from the Middle Ages to the present in October, and am using the image of Arthur from Royal 20 A. II, f. 4 as the course image. It's wonderful to have this readily available representation of Arthur from a medieval manuscript, and hopefully will serve to inspire my students not only in terms of an interest in Arthurian studies, but also manuscript studies too!

I have used your images from the Queen Mary Psalter and your interface to make a point about mediated networks.

Yes (with attribution), on a poster for a Middle English poetry reading.

Thank you, yes! Lady Jane Grey 1  and Lady Jane Grey 2

Text page with coloured initials and line-fillers, and a portion of a message written in the margin by Lady Jane Grey to her father, the Duke of Suffolk: '… youre gracys humble daughter Jane Duddley.' (London, British Library, MS Harley 2342, f. 80r). 

Yep, in my tumblr (but I mentioned it!). By the way, you're doing a very very great job, thanks! 

Just in time for prepping my 13th/14th c Northern Painting class.

Repeatedly in my blogposts, but more importantly (to me, anyway) on the front page of my MA thesis on the Confessor.

I've used bits for my site banner images.

And from one of our regular contributors came this: Well done. This is precisely the sort of thing that the national collection should be doing; enriching the culture of the nation of today by means of images from the public treasury of manuscripts.

Historiated initial (London, British Library, MS Arundel 91, f. 26v).

We've been asked to clarify a couple of issues raised by some of our users. At present, the British Library's policy on the re-use of images in the public domain applies (in the case of our medieval manuscripts) to images downloaded from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and from this blog. Readers who commission or purchase publication-quality images from our Imaging Services should note that they still need permission to reproduce them. Likewise, users should note that the technology behind our Digitised Manuscripts site currently precludes the downloading of images from that resource. This applies to all the manuscripts published as part of our Greek manuscripts, Harley Science and Royal digitisation projects.

Meanwhile, we hope that you continue to find new ways to use our images, so that together we can promote new research and gain new insights into our medieval and early modern heritage.