Medieval manuscripts blog

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13 posts from June 2013

10 June 2013

Princes, Be Good!

Celebrating the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio's birth with John Lydgate's Fall of Princes.

John Lydgate's Fall of Princes is a version of Giovanni Boccaccio's Latin prose De casibus vivorum et feminarum illustrium, in English verse, via the intermediary French translation by Laurent de Premierfait, De cas des nobles hommes et femmes (c. 1409).  Lydgate was a poet and the prior of Hatfield Regis.  He wrote the Fall of Princes between 1431 and 1439 as a commission for Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.

Boccaccio's original poem, written between 1355 and 1360 with modifications up to 1375, is a treatise in nine books on the caprice of Fortuna (Fortune).  The author recounts tragic events in the lives of notable men and women from biblical, classical, and medieval history, from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the capture of King John of France by the English at Poitiers in 1356. Through the stories, De casibus provided moral lessons for readers, demonstrating both models of virtue and examples of vice to avoid.

Miniature of two Benedictine monks kneeling before St Edmund enthroned; John Lydgate is identified as the monk on the right who holds a scroll reading 'dann Iohn lydgate'.  From John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 5r

In his Fall of Princes, Lydgate did not simply translate Boccaccio's De casibus. Influenced by Premierfait's French translation of the text, as well as his own studies, Lydgate added stories from other authors including Ovid, Petrarch, Chaucer, and Gower.  Focusing on the results of evil-doing in particular, the Fall of Princes became a kind of manual of advice for rulers on how to regulate their own lives and moral behaviour.  Lydgate's poem proved to be tremendously popular; a remarkable number of copies of the text were made in the second half of the fifteenth century.  38 manuscript versions and nine fragments are currently known, as well as some extracts included in other manuscripts.

Here are some of our favourite miniatures from an illustrated copy of the Fall of Princes made c. 1450-1460, now Harley MS 1766.  This copy was made about ten years after the poem was written by Lydgate, and was produced by the Edmund-Fremund Scribe and a team of local artists, probably in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.  The manuscript is beautifully decorated with 156 marginal miniatures accompanying various episodes in the text.  Many of these miniatures depict the tragic deaths of the characters described, which include suicides, hangings, stabbings, and various kinds of fatal falls.

Harley MS 1766 f. 13 K017974
Miniature of the Explusion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 13r

Harley MS 1766 f. 48 K060555
Miniature of Oedipus, dressed in royal garments, tearing out his own eyes, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 48r

Harley MS 1766 f. 50 K060699
Miniature of Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, committing suicide after realising that Oedipus was 'her own husband and son both', from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 50r

Harley MS 1766 f. 117 K024321
Miniature of Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria, reputed to be a decadent and lascivious ruler, represented throwing himself from the doorway of his palace into a fire, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 117r

Miniature of Haman, minister of the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, being hanged from the same pole that he had set up to kill Mordecai (from Esther 7:10), from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 141v

Harley MS 1766 f. 217 K045902
Miniature of King Arthur, the figure of an ideal king, enthroned in royal robes, receiving emissaries from Rome, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 217r


You can read more about this manuscript in: Henry Bergen, Lydgate's Fall of Princes, 4 vol. (London, 1924-27); Giovanni Boccaccio: Catalogue of an Exhibition held in the Reference Division of the British Library 3 October to 31 December 1975 (London, 1975), no. 39; Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 6, 2 vols. (London, 1996), no. 110; Sarah L. Pittaway, 'The Political Appropriation of Lydgate's Fall of Princes: A Manuscript Study of British Library, MS Harley 1766' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2011) [passim].

- Maria Alicia Trivigno 

08 June 2013

Guess the Manuscript III

Happy weekend, everyone!  How better to while away a lazy summer Saturday than playing another rousing game of Guess the Manuscript?  As always, this manuscript is part of the British Library collection, and can be found somewhere amongst the gems on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


If you're stuck, the image below might help (although it probably won't).


We'll announce the correct answer next week - good luck!  You can see our previous Guess the Manuscript posts here and here.


Update:  The not-so-obvious answer is the Bedford Psalter and Hours (Add MS 42131), written and illuminated for John Plantagenet, the Duke of Bedford.   The manuscript was produced for him in England between 1412 and 1422, and was originally enclosed in a red velvet binding.  This 15th century binding, now detached, is the source of the images above; congratulations to @richdwragg, @alixebovey, and @yorkherald for being the first few to solve the mystery!

06 June 2013

What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?

The first 10 folios of Royal MS 20 A II (the newest upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site) are a portable portrait gallery of the kings of England in chronological order.  Each king is depicted in a tinted drawing, surrounded by symbols or events from his reign. The images of later kings are followed by genealogical tables or Latin verses about the monarch in question.

Here are some examples of the ways that artists in the 14th century portrayed their rulers.  The question is - can the images tell us anything at all about how these kings really looked?

Edward the Confessor is shown in the manuscript as tall, upright, and elegantly dressed, posing with a sceptre and a book, looking pensively into the distance.

Detail of a miniature of Edward the Confessor, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 5r

In his portrait, Richard I (or Richard the Lion Heart), though seated on his throne, appears ready to leap into action and his garments seem rather ill-fitting. He is cross-eyed and looks somewhat belligerent. The heads of three Christians and three Saracens - a reference to his Crusading fame - glare at each other from either side of his throne.

Detail of a miniature of Richard the Lionheart, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8r

Compare the above to the fine figure on the 19th century statue in front of the House of Lords in London!

Statue of Richard the Lionheart, before the Palace of Westminster, via Wikipedia Commons

King John is shown in the manuscript smiling tenderly at his dogs, while stroking one of them playfully.  He has a simple, open face, and does not seem to be weighed down by the cares of state.

Detail of a miniature of King John, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Henry III, on the other hand, looks rather disgruntled in his portrait as he shows off the bells of his new cathedral, Westminster Abbey.  He does not seem very pleased with the way his project has turned out, or perhaps he is frustrated by the building costs!


Miniature of Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells, with a genealogical table of his descendants below, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 9r

The portrait of  Edward the Confessor (top) is one of 10 produced by the same artist, which can be found on folios 2 to 5 of the manuscript, beginning with legendary kings like Vortigern and Arthur.  They are all framed in black.  The portraits on folios 5v to 10 are by a second artist, who drew the later kings from Edward the Confessor to Edward II.  In this final portrait (below), Edward II is referred to as prince (‘princeps’), in the caption, indicating that the image might date from before or around the time of his coronation in 1307. He has a rather pretty face, and the person presenting the crown is looking at him sideways, apparently unsure of him.  Beneath the image, a poem in praise of King Edward has been erased, and replaced by a lament, allegedly written by the king after his deposition in 1327, bemoaning his fate as ‘le roys abatu’ (the beaten-down king) who is mocked by everyone.

Miniature of Edward II enthroned, being offered the crown, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 10r

This series of portraits of English kings precedes a copy of Peter of Langtoft’s French verse chronicle, tracing the history of Britain from the early legends of Albion and Brutus up to the time of Edward II.  Langtoft was a canon at an Augustinian priory called Bridlington in Yorkshire, and this manuscript of his work was copied in the North of England.  It also contains fragments of the Lancelot-Grail romances and a letter attributed to Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

Section of Langtoft's Chronicle detailing battles of King Arthur, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 34r

Royal 20 A II was one of the manuscripts displayed in last year's Royal exhibition, and can be seen in its fully digitised version here.

- Chantry Westwell


03 June 2013

Robert the Bruce letter found at British Library

A previously unknown letter of Robert the Bruce, addressed to the king of England, has been found in a British Library manuscript. The letter was written in 1310, and reveals how, when faced with an English army marching into Scotland, Robert made an eloquent appeal to King Edward II, asking for peace on the understanding that Scottish independence be recognised.


The letter of Robert the Bruce to Edward II, added at the foot of the page (London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A XIX, f. 87r).

Robert's letter, written in Latin, is entered into the pages of a manuscript made towards the end of the 15th century by the monks of Kirkstall Abbey (Yorkshire). Its significance was recognised by Professor Dauvit Broun of the University of Glasgow, the principal investigator of the Breaking of Britain project (Cross-border society and Scottish independence, 1216-1314). The letter is actually included in a dossier of the correspondence of King Edward III of England (1327-1377) with the king of France, the archbishop of Canterbury, Popes Benedict XII and Clement VI, and the emperor of Bavaria. Previously identified as a letter sent by Robert II, king of Scots, to Edward III, the letter in question has now been convincingly attributed to Robert the Bruce by Professor Broun.

At the time of writing (1310), King Edward II of England (1307-1327) was leading an army into Scotland. Robert the Bruce (1306-1329) was trying to stave off this invasion by seeking to open negotiations with Edward, aimed in turn at asserting Scottish independence. Describing the letter, Dauvit Broun reports that "Bruce’s tone is extremely conciliatory; he seems to be offering to do anything possible to establish peace. However, he is nonetheless plainly addressing Edward as one king to another. There is no doubt that the bottom line here is that Edward should recognise Robert as king of the Scots." Soon after the letter was sent, Edward II's army returned south of the border. When Edward subsequently re-invaded Scotland, he suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Bannockburn (24 June 1314).

G70102-32 (2)

Detail of the letter of Robert the Bruce to Edward II (London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A XIX, f. 87r).

Translation of the letter of Robert the Bruce (courtesy of Dauvit Broun, University of Glasgow)

To the most serene prince the lord Edward by God’s grace illustrious king of England, Robert by the same grace king of Scots, greeting in Him through whom the thrones of those who rule are governed. When, under the sweetness of peace, the minds of the faithful find rest, then the life of Christians is adorned with good conduct, and also the whole of Holy Mother Church, because the affairs of all kingdoms are everywhere arranged more favourably. Our humility has led us, now and at other times, to beseech your highness more earnestly so that, having God and public decency in sight, you would take pains to cease from the persecution of us and the disturbance of the people of our kingdom in order that devastation and the spilling of Christian blood may henceforth stop. Naturally, everything which we and our people will be able to do by bodily service, or to bear by giving freely of our goods, for the redemption of good peace and for the grace of your good will for all time, which must be earned, we are prepared and shall be prepared to accomplish in a suitable and honest way, with a pure heart. And if it accords with your will to have a discussion with us on these matters, may your royal sublimity send word in writing to us, by the bearer of this letter. Written at Kildrum in Lennox, the Kalends of October in the fifth year of our reign [1 October 1310].

We are grateful to Dauvit Broun for sharing his research with us, and to Chris Lee and Tony Grant of the British Library for providing the photograph. You can read more about the new find here. Don't forget that we're always happy to publish any new discoveries relating to the British Library's medieval manuscripts -- contact us via Twitter @blmedieval, or using the comments field at the end of this post.

01 June 2013

A Calendar Page for June 2013

For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.



Calendar page for June with a tournament scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 23v


A tournament scene is a fairly unsual 'labour' for the month of June, although in keeping with this manuscript's emphasis on aristocratic pursuits.  In the foreground two knights on horseback are engaged in a sword-fight, with their attendants beside them and broken lances on the ground.  Behind them two others are jousting in full armour; in the background throngs of spectators can be seen in the stands, including some multi-storied structures accessible by ladders.  The bravest (or most foolhardy) members of the audience have climbed to the roofs of nearby buildings to get the best view of the tournament. Four men in the bas-de-page are involved in another kind of tournament, riding on hobby-horses and literally tilting with windmills.  On the following folio is a more typical June scene of shepherds shearing their flock, below the saints' days for June and a lobster-like crab for Cancer.



Calendar page for June with a bas-de-page scene of sheep-shearing, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 24r