Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from August 2013

30 August 2013

Guess the Manuscript VI

In honour of our recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts, the latest installment of our universally-acclaimed Guess the Manuscript series is going Greek.  There's your first and only clue; as always, the manuscript is part of our medieval collections, and can be found somewhere on the Digitised Manuscripts site.  Happy hunting!


If you haven't already had a go at this engrossing game, please check out our previous posts, Guess the Manuscript I, II, III, IV and V.

You can leave your guesses here in the comments, or send them to us via Twitter @BLMedieval.

Update:  and the winner is... Peter, at @chesswoodseats ! Peter was the only one who came up with the correct answer; this is a folio from Add MS 15581, a Greek copy of the Gospels from the 11th-12th centuries.  Thanks for playing along, and look out for a new Guess the Manuscript soon!

27 August 2013

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

The British Library has one of the most comprehensive collections of manuscripts in Old English, many of which have already been catalogued online with images at the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  We have recently added catalogue entries and images for the Old English manuscripts in the Additional collection.  There are relatively few of these, but some of these manuscripts contain unique or very important texts.

They are:

Add MS 47967:  The Old English Orosius

Zoomorphic initial (A)'E'(ft) with four heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book III, Chapter i, from the Old English Orosius, England (Winchester), c. 892-925, Add MS 47967, f. 31v


Add MS 37517 The 'Bosworth Psalter'

Opening page of Psalm 101 with a large decorated initial, display capitals, and interlinear gloss in Old English, from the Bosworth Psalter, England (Canterbury?), 4th quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 37517, f. 64v

Add MS 40000:  The 'Thorney Gospels'

Large decorated initial 'Q'(uoniam) at the beginning of Luke's Gospel, with faint interlinear glosses, France (Brittany?), 1st quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 40000, f. 48r

The glosses in the Thorney Gospels, which are extremely faint, can be seen more clearly online by zooming in on the images, than they can in the manuscript itself.  They are above lines 3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 17, 18 and 24; if you are having trouble reading them, you can find details in N R Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), no. 131.

Inscription in Old English from the 2nd half of the 11th century referring to the former binding of the manuscript: '+Aelfric 7 wulfwine. Eadgife goldsmides geafen to broperraedenne twegen orn weghenes goldes daet is on pis ilce boc her foruten gewired' (Aelfric and Wulfwine, goldsmiths of Eadgifu, gave for the confraternity two oras of weighed gold which is wired without upon this same book), Add MS 40000, f. 4r

Add MS 23211Fragments of Saxon royal genealogies and a Martyrology in Old English

Fragment with decorated initial from the first page of a martyrology, England (south-west), 4th quarter of the 9th century, Add MS 23211, f. 2r


Add MS 34652:  a leaf from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the preface with a West-Saxon genealogy from Cerdic (494) to Alfred (899) (f. 2) and a leaf from the bilingual Rule of Chrodegang (chapters 60-62, incomplete) (f. 3)

Text page of Chrodegang's rule with initials and rubric, England (Winchester), 2nd half of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 3v

Add MS 61735Farming memoranda of Ely Abbey (also available on Digitised Manuscripts here, and please check out our recent blog post on the memoranda)

Recto of the 3 strips of parchment containing an inventory and valuation of livestock supplied by Ely to Thorney Abbey and a note of rents (payable in eels!), England (Ely), c. 1007-1025, Add MS 61735


Add MS 40165AMartyrology fragment (ff. 6-7) (also available on Digitised Manuscripts here)

Martyrology fragment written in insular miniscule, England (south-west?), 4th quarter of the 9th century, Add MS 40165A, f. 6v


Add MS 9381Bodmin Gospels (St Petroc Gospels), with records of grants of manumission in Old England and Latin added on blank leaves and in margins

Canon tables with Bodmin manumissions, France (Brittany), last quarter of the 9th century or 1st quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 9381, f. 13r


Add MS 32246Part of Priscian's Excerptiones with Old English and Latin marginal glosses and Aelfric's Colloquy

Add MS 32246 f. 21v K90112-39
Excerptiones with a Latin-Old English glossary, England, 1st half of the 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 21v

 - Chantry Westwell

24 August 2013

Mary, Queen of Scots Manuscripts On Loan

The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of important historical documents to the excellent Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.  Our loans are displayed alongside jewellery, textiles, furniture, paintings, maps and manuscripts, all of which are used to re-examine the life and legacy of Scotland’s most famous Queen.

On 16 May 1568, Mary fled to England after being forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son, the future James I of England. As Elizabeth I’s cousin, Mary fully expected to be invited to court, but her Catholic faith and claim to the English throne made her a natural focus for discontented Catholics who refused to conform to Elizabeth's Protestant faith. For reasons of security, therefore, Mary was placed under house arrest and for the next nineteen years would be moved with her household from one secure location to another. 

Additional 33594, f. 174

Sketch of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire: London, British Library, MS Additional 33594, f. 174

One of the British Library loans currently on display in Edinburgh is this sketch of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire, in which Mary was first imprisoned in 1569 and again in 1584.  Mary complained that ‘I am in a walled enclosure, on the top of a hill exposed to the winds and inclemencies of heaven’, and that her own apartments were ‘two little miserable rooms, so excessively cold, especially at night’.  The castle bridge and gate-house are visible bottom-right and on the left the Queen’s presence chamber and bedchamber have been identified along with rooms for her gentlewomen of the chamber, surgeon, ‘poticary’ and her secretary, Claude Nau.


Sketch of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots: London, British Library, MS Additional 48027, f. 569* 

In 1586, Mary was brought to trial for complicity in the Babington plot.  The hearing took place on 14–15 October 1586 in the Great Chamber at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, and is illustrated in this pen-and-ink sketch from the papers of Robert Beale, Clerk of the Privy Council.  Mary is shown twice: aided by two gentlewomen as she enters the court room (top-right), and sitting in a high-backed chair (upper-right, marked ‘A’).  Elizabeth did not attend the trial and therefore her chair of state on the dais is empty (top-centre).  The trial commissioners are identified by numbers.  Elizabeth’s chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, shown seated opposite Mary, is ‘2’, and Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary, shown opposite the vacant chair of state, is ‘28’.  The commission of thirty-six peers, privy councillors and judges found Mary guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. 

Cotton Caligula C ix, f. 192

Letter from James VI to Elizabeth I, 26, January 1587: London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula C IX, f. 192  

On 26 January 1587, in a final attempt to save the life of the mother he barely knew, James VI of Scotland wrote to his ‘dearest sister’, Elizabeth I.  Beginning two lines from the bottom of this page he asks, ‘Quhat thing, Madame, can greatlier touche me in honoure that is a king and a sonne than that my nearest neihboure, being in straittest [friend]shipp with me, shall rigouruslie putt to death a free souveraigne prince and my natural mother, alyke in estaite and sexe to hir that so uses her … to a harder fortune, and touching hir nearlie in proximitie of bloode?’


Sketch of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: London, British Library, MS Additional 48027, f. 650*

Although Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant on 1 February 1587, she remained extremely reluctant to execute an anointed sovereign and instructed her secretary, William Davison, not to send it.  Lord Burghley, however, acted quickly and had the death warrant carried to Fotheringhay by Robert Beale, who read it aloud to Mary on 7 February, the evening before her execution.  This drawing shows Mary three times: entering the hall; being attended by her gentlewomen on the scaffold; and, finally, lying at the block with the executioner's axe raised ready to strike.  The Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent are seated to the left (1 & 2) and Sir Amias Paulet, one of Mary’s guards, is seated behind the scaffold (3). 

Additional 23240, f. 65

Letter from James VI to Elizabeth I, March 1587: London, British Library, MS Additional 23240, f. 65

When Elizabeth found out that Mary had been executed, she was furious and wrote to James VI apologising for ‘that miserable accident’ and protesting her innocence.  This is James’s unsigned draft reply to Elizabeth, dated March 1587, in which he assures her that given ‘youre many & solemne attestationis of youre innocentie I darr not wronge you so farre as not to judge honorablie of youre unspotted pairt thairin …’  Then, seizing the opportunity to press his case to be named as Elizabeth’s heir, he added ‘I looke that ye will geve me at this tyme suche a full satisfaction in all respectis as sall be a meane to strenthin & unite this yle, establishe & maintaine the trew religion’.

The Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition is on at National Museums Scotland until 17 November 2013.

21 August 2013

King Athelstan's Books

Are you tired of the Anglo-Saxons yet? No, we're not either! Those of you who have been engrossed by Michael Wood's recent series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, may have seen the beautiful Athelstan Psalter in last night's programme. We featured this manuscript in a previous blogpost; but it's worth looking at again, and you may like to know that the entire Psalter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


The Athelstan Psalter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r).

The Athelstan Psalter is a curious little book, just large enough to fit into an adult male's hand. The script of the original portion indicates that the manuscript was made in North-East France, in the 9th century; but by the middle of the 10th century the Psalter was in England, where it received a number of accretions, including a metrical calendar and some computistical texts.

The association of this manuscript with King Athelstan, the first king of England (reigned 924–939), is unproved. A note by a later owner, Thomas Dakcombe (d. c. 1572), describes the book as "Psaltirum Regis Ethelstani"; and this is echoed in the list of contents made for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). As Professor Simon Keynes has commented, "the claim of the so-called Athelstan Psalter once to have belonged to the king is based on the slenderest of evidence". Michael Wood himself spoke on the Athelstan Psalter at the British Library's Royal manuscripts conference in 2011, the proceedings of which are shortly to be published by the British Library.

It's amazing how such a little book has survived the ravages of time (it escaped destruction by fire in 1731) to become a modern star in the age of television! Episode 3 of Michael Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, entitled Aethelstan: The First King of England, can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

Further reading

Simon Keynes, ‘King Athelstan’s books’, in Michael Lapidge & Helmut Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 143–201, at pp. 193–96

Robert Deshman, ‘The Galba Psalter: pictures, texts and context in an early medieval prayerbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 109–38

20 August 2013

St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels


St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Now on show in Durham, until 30 September 2013, is this miniature of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The page in question prefaces the Gospel of John in this famous, Anglo-Saxon gospelbook. John is depicted sitting on a blue cushion, with a scroll held in his left hand, and with his evangelist symbol (an eagle, imago aequilae) above his head. The pigments are as rich as the day they were painted, a combination of oranges, reds, blues and greens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is the centrepiece of the Durham exhibition, staged in Palace Green Library, a stone's throw (literally) from the impressive Romanesque cathedral. Also are show are other British Library manuscripts, most notably the St Cuthbert Gospel (which we bought for the nation in 2012 for £9 million), plus treasures from the British Museum, Corpus Christi College Cambridge and other institutions, and items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Catch the exhibition while you can, it's a treat!

You can read more about the exhibition here. And you can see the Lindisfarne Gospels in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

19 August 2013

Get Ready to 'Save-As': New Uploads to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

As many of you hopefully already know, the British Library offers two different ways to work with digital versions of our medieval manuscripts.  Our Digitised Manuscripts website contains complete coverage of many of the items in our collections, while the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is another very useful source of digital catalogue records and images.

Miniature of the Crucifixion, from a leaf from a missal, northern France or Netherlands, 2nd half of the 13th century, Additional MS 34652, f. 5

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is based on a Microsoft Access database, so it has allowed us to develop some very detailed search tools.  CIM (as we call it) is particularly useful for iconographical searches, since each image is described individually.  You can search for various terms either in these specific image descriptions, or within the wider manuscript records.

We are pleased to announce that from 13 August you will be able to find even more images and manuscripts in the Catalogue, which now includes over 4,200 manuscripts (with separate parts for another 1,000) and 36,000 images.   

We update the online Catalogue twice a year, so please do send along any additional bibliography, your comments, and or suggested corrections to mss [at] bl [dot] uk, and we will include these in the next upload.

Miniature of a man cutting down a tree on which he sits (an illustration of the proverb: 'chopping down the branch that supports you'), from Pierre Sala’s Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), 1st quarter of the 16th century, Stowe MS 955, f. 15r (for example, we’ve already corrected the just-spotted typo in the description of this image!)

All of the images in CIM are provided under a Public Domain Mark, meaning that, within certain restrictions of reasonable use, images from this catalogue are freely available to the public.  We ask that you maintain the library's Public Domain tag, and provide a link or other credit back to the source on the British Library's site – but otherwise, we are happy for you to help us share these riches even more widely with the world!

Or, if you are just interested in exploring, why not take a tour of some collection highlights?  Our curatorial staff have teamed up with other experts to put together a series of virtual exhibitions, exploring topics that range from manuscripts of the Bible to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to medieval bestiaries.

Drawing of Matthew the Evangelist and a musical sequence on 'Fulgens' in Anglo-Norman neums, with the opening showing metal clasps and part of a front flyleaf, from Orosius’ Historum adversum paganos, England (Winchester?), between c. 892 and c. 925, Add MS 47967, f. 1v

We will soon have a blog post for you on our recent uploads of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to CIM, but in the meantime, happy searching!

 - Kathleen Doyle and Sarah J Biggs

15 August 2013

Credo: British Library Manuscripts in Paderborn

The British Library has loaned three manuscripts to the exhibition 'Credo', which opened in Paderborn on 26 July 2013. The exhibition explores the Christianisation of medieval Europe, covering aspects such as the foundations of the missionary church and its spread through the Roman Empire, the Christianisation of Ireland, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the missionary initiatives from the British Isles to the Continent, and the Christianisation of Scandinavia and of Lithuania under the rule of the Jagellonians.

Detail of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C II, f. 5v)
The section on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons opens with an early, Kentish copy of Bede's Historia ecclesiaistica gentis Anglorum (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius C II), displayed open at Bede's famous description of Britannia. Also on loan is the early-9th century Anglian Collection (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B VI), showing the royal pedigrees of Deira and Bernicia, which traced the origin of the Northumbrian kings back to Woden. Paulinus, the Italian missionary who went to the north of England to convert King Edwin of Northumbria (d. 633), is there named as the first bishop of York.

Detail of Alcuin's letter (London, British Library, MS Harley 208, f. 73v)
The third British Library loan is exhibited in the section of the exhibition examining the process of conversion by conquest under Charlemagne. British Library MS Harley 208 is a collection of letters written by the theologian Alcuin of York (d. 804), who was an advisor to Charlemagne. The letter displayed is an important witness of early medieval missionary thinking, the theology of conversions and a crucial document for the history of Charlemagne's struggle with the Saxon people. The entire manuscript is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Image courtesy of the 'Credo' website.
The British Library is very pleased to be able to support this exhibition. Credo: Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter is open in Paderborn until 3 November 2013, and is definitely worth a visit. In-Credo-ble: sorry, couldn't resist!

13 August 2013

The Lady of the Mercians

Some of you may already have watched the first episode of Michael Wood's new series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, which is still available on the BBC iPlayer. (We're very hopeful that the whole series will eventually be broadcast worldwide.)


Detail of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, from a 13th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).


King Alfred and his daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).

Episode two will be shown tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00), and is entitled "The Lady of the Mercians". Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the daughter of Alfred of Wessex, and the wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Having become sole ruler of the Mercians following her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd is credited with helping to reconquer the Danelaw (the English lands under Viking rule) in tandem with her younger brother Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924). As Michael Wood concludes, without her "England might never have happened".

Roundels depicting Alfred, Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder, from a 14th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B VI).

Episode three of Michaels Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons will be shown next week. Many of the manuscripts featured in the series are held at the British Library, and some of them can be explored in more detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.


This manuscript of Aldhelm's De laudibus virginitatis was made around AD 900, possibly in Mercia, and later belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory (London, British Library, MS Royal 5 F III, f. 35r).