Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from May 2013

29 May 2013

Film Screening of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

Last September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. On that occasion, we were delighted to announce that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander can now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 3r).

Now, as part of the British Weeks in Bulgaria, the British Embassy in Sofia will host a screening of the film ‘Portrait of a Quest’ about the Gospels of Ivan Alexander. The event will be held on 5 June 2013 at the British Residence, 6pm to 8pm. Free entrance, RSVP: [email protected].

The British Weeks in Bulgaria is a celebration of Bulgarian-British links that includes more than twenty events to take place in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. The events highlight the close links and prospects resulting from the close relationship between Bulgaria and Great Britain. For more information and a full programme, please follow this link.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 32v).

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the 14th century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text, no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists. The scribe Simeon recounts that the book was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. On display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery at St Pancras is a portrait of the Tsar in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgment. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy of the end of time.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, British Library, MS Additional 39627, f. 265v).

The manuscript is a remarkable survival.  Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed. Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube. Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander. For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul’s to the young English traveller the Hon. Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Museum by his daughter.

27 May 2013

Rejoice Now!

Our newest upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site is a gorgeous example of a rare early medieval liturgical document known as an Exultet roll.  Exultet rolls contain the hymns and prayers said during the blessing of the Easter (or Paschal) candle; their name comes from the opening exhortation: Exultet iam angelica turba caelum ('Rejoice now, all you heavenly choirs of angels'; see below).

Detail of a decorated initial 'E'(xultet) at the beginning of the prayer for the lighting of the Paschal candle, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075-1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Our Exultet roll, Add MS 30337, comes from the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in southern Italy. This region of Italy was strongly influenced by Byzantine practice, and by the 11th century had developed a distinct style for the Easter vigil, continuing to use liturgical rolls in the ceremony; such rolls had largely fallen out of favour elsewhere in Europe.

Exultet rolls were read aloud from an ambo, or elevated pulpit, which faced the congregation.  As the deacon chanted the words, he would allow each finished section to hang over the edge of the ambo so that the gathered people could see the accompanying pictures.  This courtesy to the audience required, of course, that the images be painted upside-down on the roll.  We have published the online version of Add MS 30337 with the 'correct' orientation so that the text can be easily read, but as a courtesy to all of you, please see the images in all their splendour (and right-side-up) below.

Detail of Christ enthroned between two angels, Add MS 30337, membrane 1

Detail of four angels ('Angelica turba caelorum'), Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Detail of Tellus, the personification of Mother Earth, with a cow and a serpent suckling her breasts, and in the lower register, a personification of Ecclesia between a group of lay people and a group of clerics, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

Detail of a deacon reading and unrolling the Exultet roll from the ambo and the Paschal candle being lit, Add MS 30337, membrane 4

Detail of the Crucifixion, Add MS 30337, membrane 6

Detail of the Crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ's Harrowing of Hell, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

Detail of the Noli me tangere, and below, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Add MS 30337, membrane 8

Detail of the Paschal candle being censed inside a church, Add MS 30337, membrane 9

Detail of bees gathering nectar, and a bee-keeper collecting wax to create the Paschal candle, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Detail of the Virgin Mary enthroned, with two figures excised on either side, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

You can check out the fully digitised roll here, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

24 May 2013

Of Captions, Clerics, and Queens: Tweeting the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

And now for something a bit different: a guest post from one of our most faithful Twitter correspondents, Robert Miller (many thanks, Robert!).

From LOLcats to the seductive Hey-Girl-I-Like-the-Library-Too musings of Ryan Gosling, the internet was made for captioning: slapping a surprising phrase on an unsuspecting image in the service of humour and hipsterish irony.

It was only a matter of time before captions were used to retrofit medieval art for the social media age.  With the help of Photoshop, Star Wars fans have creatively rewoven the Bayeux Tapestry.  And then there is Dutch medieval scholar Erik Kwakkel, the (decidedly youthful) father of illuminated manuscript captioning.  Erik works to popularise manuscript studies with a heady mix of tweeting, blogging, and tumblring, in both serious and LOL modes: his captions typically evoke a delightful dissonance between a centuries-old image and our modern sensibilities.

My first attempt at Kwakkelian captioning on Twitter was my most successful, if one measures success by the number of retweets one gets (and what else matters, these days, but to tweet and be retweeted in turn?):

Add MS 39636 f. 10r
At the medieval Apple store, trying out the latest iPad.  Additional MS 39636, f. 10r

I've been inspired to caption for a few reasons:  an amateur's love of medieval illuminated manuscripts, the vibrant, welcoming community of medievalists on Twitter (Damien Kempf, Sarah Peverley, Kathleen McCallum, and Shamma Boyarin, to name just a few); and the British Library's farsighted decision to make its medieval images free of copyright restrictions, meaning manuscript geeks like myself can caption, post, and play with the Library's image-hoard to their hearts' content.

Sharing captioned illuminations on Twitter is a great way to spark scholarly discussion, and I have learned much from tweeters and bloggers such as Steffen Hope and A Clerk of Oxford.  Of course, given the impish nature of many captions, the online conversation is not always entirely serious.  The following image, for example, gave rise to a debate between tweeting medievalists (Sarah J Biggs among them) as to the 14th-century origins of designer handbags:

Harley MS 4399 f. 22r
A queen, a monk, and a fabulous bag (probably Kate Spade).  Harley MS 4399, f. 22r

 Undoubtedly the best captions, like the best lyric poems, write themselves:

Royal MS 6 E VI f. 104r
With this bagel, I thee wed.  Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 104r

Other captions heighten the drama of crucial moments in a manuscript's narrative:

Harley MS 4399 f. 82r
A monk, bopped on the head with a baguette.  Harley MS 4399, f. 82r

But my favourite type of caption isn't even the funny kind.  My favourite type of caption is a simple acknowledgement of the beauty, the intimacy, and the exceptionally human quality of medieval manuscript illumination.  The British Library's savvy use of social media is doing much to bring delightful, tender images, like the one below, to an even wider audience:

Royal MS 20 C VII f. 12r
The abbot of Saint-Denis consulting a wise-woman, which is kinda awesome.  Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 12r

An academic librarian in the United States, Robert Miller dreams of a full-time position as a medieval anchorite (with paid vacations).  You can follow his tweets @robmmiller.

And of course, you can follow us at @blmedieval.

22 May 2013

A Good Walk Spoiled

One of the most charismatic manuscripts in the British Library's collections is the so-called "Golf Book". This Book of Hours was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and is so named because on one page (the calendar for September) it contains a depiction of a game resembling golf.

A miniature of four men playing a game resembling golf, at the bottom of the calendar page for September (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

Of course, golf is not to everyone's taste. Mark Twain is accredited with describing the game as "a good walk spoiled"; and, like many sports, it's arguably better fun to play than to watch, notwithstanding the fact that golf is to be introduced to the summer Olympics at Rio 2016. But just what is the game being played below?


At first sight, we can certainly deduce that this game does resemble golf, even down to the cloth caps that some of the competitors are wearing (see the image below). We can clearly see in our miniature three balls, with three of the competitors holding curled sticks, reminiscent of modern golf clubs. One man, wearing a green cloak, is gesticulating to his companion, and may be what we might call a "caddie"; and another is standing at the door of the adjacent building (the "nineteenth hole"). But surely the stance of the player on the right, in the orange-red jerkin, is all wrong. Modern golfers play the game on their feet, rather than on their knees, both to get a better purchase on the ball and for better balance. We think that the current-day authorities would view this player's technique very dimly. Maybe this stance would be outlawed in the same way that the anchoring of putters (don't ask) is to be banned from 2016. Less a good walk spoiled than a good crawl spoiled.

Image courtesy of

You can view the whole of the magnificent Golf Book on our Digitised Manuscripts site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

20 May 2013

Look on these Works and Frown?

Our post on the Codex Alexandrinus last December brought this comment from Dave P.: "I wonder if conservators in 100 years time will look at this work and frown, as you do at older work?" The simple answer is that we hope not. Before conserving any collection item we consider all the options and are confident that we choose the most suitable and least invasive treatment available to us. But that, surely, is what past conservators thought too?

A39603 silking detail

Add MS 39603  This  beautifully decorated 11th/12th century Greek cruciform Gospels now has pigment corrosion throughout. In the past it was treated by covering the damaged areas with a fine silk net to prevent further losses. This process is not easily reversible, should the manuscript require further conservation in the future.

Our brow-wrinkling is more likely to be pondering the why of an old repair than expressing displeasure with it. No conservator can justify unnecessary work or has the time to do it, so we should assume that everything we see was thought to be an essential and efficient treatment. If earlier generations have left us problems, they didn’t do it deliberately! The only sensible reaction is to learn from their work what is effective and harmless in the long-term.


Add MS 43790B   When this manuscript of few folios was rebound, many short folds of blank modern paper were added to bulk the spine sufficiently to achieve a satisfactory round. The manuscript is well protected, but the book is wedge-shaped. In hindsight, it would have been better to use full size blank leaves.

Not all historic repairs make us frown. Some early sewn or laced repairs to splits in parchment have endured for many centuries. Similarly, Humphrey Davy’s recipe for relaxing cockled parchment, a mix of spirits of wine (i.e. ethanol) and water, works very well and continued as a treatment until recently. The older the repair, the more likely it will use natural materials and simple techniques with known and trusted outcomes.


Add MS 64797  The wooden board split and part was lost, though the full-width covering leather remains.  An infill was carefully built up from layers of millboard (which has more desirable qualities than new wood). The top layer was recessed to hold and protect the old leather which would have been vulnerable to further damage if simply adhered on top of a flat board.

However, historically the available range of repair materials was limited, so tears and weak edges were supported with whatever was to hand. Occasionally, we find a medieval manuscript on parchment with strips of 18th century writing paper reinforcing damaged edges, apparently adhered with wet flour paste by a previous owner. We see now that such heavy repairs cause further damage to the weak parchment, and microscopy reveals that wetting parchment can degrade it too. These days we make lighter repairs, so that if there is further deterioration the repair materials will split, not the original, and we use adhesives that add no or little moisture to the parchment. But that earlier repair, however flawed, has both ensured the manuscript survived to the present, and forced us to improve our methods.


Harley 5201, f.90r  The damage is caused by touching or kissing the saint’s image. It is unlikely to get worse and is a valuable record of historic devotional practices. It does not require treatment at present but, if it should, we would also try to preserve the material culture evidence.

A wide range of repair resources is now available to us. The British Library buys traditional materials like paper and adhesives of the highest quality, often made specifically for conservation. They are tested, so we can be sure they neither contain undesirable additives, nor will degrade over time to release damaging compounds. But we also have access to newly-developed specialist supplies for the more difficult tasks, where customary techniques are inadequate. We use these cautiously for, despite accelerated aging tests, we cannot be entirely certain how they will behave in 50 or 100 years from now. We remember problems with experimental treatments briefly used last century, and take them as a warning. We also make sure our repairs can be removed without causing any more damage, just in case re-treatment is necessary in the future.


Harley 3334, f.59r   The holes suggest this flaw started to split during manufacture while the parchment was drying under tension, and the maker stopped it progressing by temporarily sewing or pinning. Once dry, the flaw was stable and the text could be written around the damage.

At the same time, our focus is changing from invasive treatment to preservation. It is better to use limited resources to slow down the deterioration of whole collections by controlling temperature and humidity, by providing simple protective enclosures, and by training staff and readers in good handling techniques, so that fewer items require active conservation in future. There is always likely to be the need for running repairs in a working library, but it is surely better to prevent damage when we can. For the future, digitisation will mean our manuscripts are less handled and spend more time in optimum storage conditions, so conservators of the future should need to intervene and treat manuscripts more rarely. Perhaps they will frown at some of our work, but we hope they will mostly be content that we did our best to preserve these unique objects for many more generations to enjoy.

17 May 2013

Guess the Manuscript II

It's Friday, it's recently been snowing in England (it is May, after all), so it's time for another of our award-winning series, Guess the Manuscript®. This item belongs to the British Library's collections -- but what is it? A trawl through our Digitised Manuscripts site may give you a clue.

Guess the manuscript

And the answer is ... the so-called Quadripartite Indenture, comprising a series of agreements between King Henry VII (r. 1485-1509) and the monks of Westminster Abbey, dated 1504. The manuscript is preserved in its original binding of red velvet lined with damask, and it still contains its five original wax seals. Congratulations to @All_A_Mort, @manx_maid and @yorkherald for being among the first to identify it!

You can see our previous Guess the Manuscript post here.

15 May 2013

Have You Used DigiPal Yet?

The online world is awash with new resources for the study of medieval manuscripts. One such is DigiPal, maintained at King's College, London. As its homepage states, DigiPal (Digital Resource and Database of Palaeography, Manuscripts and Diplomatic) focuses on the handwriting of English manuscripts, particularly those produced between AD 1000 and 1100, during the reigns of Æthelred, Cnut and William the Conqueror.

DigiPal is still in development, but it already has images available from almost 50 medieval books and charters in the British Library's collections. And here is one example:

Add Ch 19795 face
Lease by Archbishop Wulfstan to Wulfgifu of land at Perry Wood in St Martin's-without-Worcester, 1003 x 1023 (London, British Library, Additional Charter 19795, face).

DigiPal enables its users to review and compare individual letter forms, and to examine the work of individual scribes. The site includes a guide on how to use DigiPal (which demonstrates, for instance, how to find manuscripts produced in Worcester and held at the British Library).

We heartily recommend that those of you interested in vernacular, Anglo-Saxon manuscripts consult this site. For more details about the project, its outcomes and rationale, see here. DigiPal already features manuscripts from many other institutions, including Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: for an excellent feature on the project, see the Parker Library blog.

Add Ch 19795 face
Detail of Archbishop Wulfstan's lease (London, British Library, Additional Charter 19795, face).

13 May 2013

Why Do We Blog?

Good question. Why do we blog?

The simple answer is we blog in order to tell you, our readers, about our wonderful manuscripts. We are custodians of world-class collections of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts; but it may not be immediately obvious to you what we look after at the British Library, and we're trying to do our best to remedy that.

Detail of an historiated initial 'R'(ege) with a seated scribe labelled 'OSBEARNVS', a censing monk, animals, and animal heads: Life of St Dunstan, Canterbury, late 11th or early 12th century (London, British Library, MS Arundel 16, f. 2r).

We use this blog to promote our events and exhibitions, most recently our exhibition on Royal manuscripts. We also like to tell you about our various digitisation projects, and to draw your attention to some of our resources, most notably the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

This blog has recently undergone a facelift. Signficant changes are the new field labelled "Search this blog", in which you can discover our previous posts, and the ability to subscribe by email. And you can keep up-to-date via our Twitter feed, @blmedieval.

Donatus writing his grammar, his ink-pot held by a monk labelled 'Heinre'(?), at the end of Sedulius Scotus's Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici: Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century (London, British Library, MS Arundel 43, f. 80v).

Are we doing a good job? We hope so -- after all, we have received well-nigh half a million page-views in the last year-and-a-bit -- but please feel free to comment at the end of each post, and using Twitter. Most importantly, we want to encourage your research in and enthusiam for our marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Julian Harrison & Sarah J Biggs