Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from August 2013

12 August 2013

Twelfth-Century Girl Power

One of our recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts is the indisputably fabulous Melisende Psalter (Egerton MS 1139); have a look at the fully digitised version here. This extraordinary manuscript is not only a superb example of 12th-century Crusader art, but also a fitting legacy for the remarkable woman for whom it was most likely created - Melisende, the Queen of Jerusalem.

Detail of a miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 2r

Melisende was born in 1105, and spent her early years in Edessa, a territory that had been conquered by her father, Baldwin, a Frankish crusading knight who met with much success on the battlefield. His wife (the deliriously-named Morphia), to whom he was much devoted, was the daughter of an Armenian prince, and a formidable figure in her own right. As their eldest daughter, Melisende was heavily influenced by her strong and ambitious parents, and grew up surrounded by the traditions of both East and West – not to mention a near-constant state of warfare.

When Melisende was 13 her father was elected the King of Jerusalem. Lacking sons, the newly-crowned Baldwin II took the unusual step of naming his eldest daughter the heir to his kingdom, and Melisende soon became an active participant in the administration of the crusader state. Baldwin eventually arranged a match between Melisende and the Frankish military commander Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine, after taking steps to ensure that his daughter’s position would be assured after her marriage.

Melisende and Fulk ascended to the joint rule of Jerusalem after Baldwin II’s death in 1131, but Fulk did not wait long before he sought to strip Melisende of her power and seize the throne for himself alone. Melisende was more than a match for him, however. Possessing a canny knowledge of diplomacy, able military commanders, and the loyalty of her subjects, she quickly put an end to his attempted coup. The couple eventually reconciled, but Melisende’s position was sacrosanct ever after; the historian William of Tyre later wrote that Fulk never again tried to ‘take the initiative, even in trivial matters, without [her] knowledge’.

Ivory plaque from the lower binding, of the six vices and six works of charity, illustrating Matthew 25:35-36, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139

Some scholars have argued that the Melisende Psalter was a gift from Fulk to Melisende after their reconciliation – a glorious form for an apology to take, if true. There is certainly plenty of evidence for this suggestion. The death of Baldwin II is listed in the Psalter’s calendar, but Fulk’s death in 1143 is not noted, which implies that he was alive at time it was created. The Psalter was originally encased in two ivory plaques (now detached), one of which includes a carving of a bird labeled as ‘herodius’ (see above); in the French vernacular this bird was also called a ‘foulque’, a rather obvious allusion to Fulk.

Detail of a miniature of the Deesis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 12v

Like Melisende herself, the Psalter is a unique synthesis of East and West. The text, liberally highlighted with gold lettering, conforms to the standards of the Holy Sepulchre, but its style and script is closest to contemporary French or English productions, and the calendar is a copy of one developed for use in the diocese of Winchester. At the beginning of the manuscript is a series of 24 full-page miniatures with scenes from the New Testament; the presence of such scenes is common in western European Psalters from this period, but the images in Melisende’s are of a distinctly eastern style, reflective of the Byzantine Orthodox liturgical tradition. These masterful illuminations were created by an artist named Basilius, who signed his name (‘Basilius me fecit’ or ‘Basilius made me’) on the last miniature in the series (this inscription is just barely visible in the stool beneath Christ’s feet; see above).

Some of our favourite highlights from the manuscript are below; have a look at the entire manuscript here.

Miniature of Christ and the raising of Lazarus, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r

Miniature of the Ascension of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 11r

Historiated initial ‘B’(eatus vir) of David harping, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

Miniature of Mary Magdalene, at the beginning of a prayer to her, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 210r

Ivory plaque from the upper binding, with scenes from the life of David, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139

- Sarah J Biggs

09 August 2013

The Eyes Have It

Here's a poser for you. Below are the evangelist portraits from the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, reputedly painted (according to a 10th-century colophon) by Bishop Eadfrith (698-c. 721).

The question is: can you spot the difference? The answer is found at the foot of this post.


St Matthew the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 25v)


St Mark the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 93v)


St Luke the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 137v)


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

To find out more about the making of the Lindisfarne Gospels, we highly recommend that you read Richard Gameson's new book, From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of the Lindisfarne Gospels (Third Millennium, 2013). Or why not visit Durham itself, where the manuscript itself is on display until September 2013? Meanwhile, don't forget that you can view all the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

So, the answer to our poser is ... well, it's a bit of a trick question. All the eyes are blue, except ... you'll have to work that one out!

06 August 2013

Michael Wood and King Alfred


The opening words of King Alfred's will, beginning "Ic Ælfred cinge", in an 11th-century copy: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v.

Earlier this year, Michael Wood, the historian and broadcaster, came to film some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts for his new television series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. Some of you may know Michael's previous books and programmes, such as The Story of England, The Story of India, Conquistadors, and In Search of the Dark Ages; and he is a familiar face at the British Library (for instance, he chaired a discussion with Seamus Heaney, Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby at our Beowulf festival in 2009, and he was a speaker at our Royal manuscripts conference in 2011).

Two of our curators, one conservator and several British Library manuscripts feature in episode one of the new series, to be broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00). It's always a pleasure to work with Michael Wood, who is a trained Anglo-Saxonist, and we look forward (like everyone else!) to watching his new programme, entitled "Alfred of Wessex". As ever, it will be available subsequently on the BBC iPlayer (United Kingdom viewers only).

Meanwhile, you might like to know that can see the whole of King Alfred's will on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site ... and you can read more about it here.

05 August 2013

Hooray for Homer!

A major new addition to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site is the Townley Homer (Burney MS 86), named after one of its former owners, Charles Townley (1737–1805). This manuscript, probably written in 1059, contains the Iliad of Homer, together with extensive marginal and interlinear annotations (or scholia).


The portrait of Charles Townley in the Townley Homer (London, British Library, MS Burney 86, f. iv recto).

The manuscript has changed hands several times over the centuries. It was owned by the Italian cardinal Giovanni Salviati (1490–1553), and was acquired by Charles Townley at Rome in 1773. An engraved portrait of Townley is preserved on f. iv recto, as is an engraving of a bust of Homer acquired by Townley, on f. vi recto, and which can now be seen in the British Museum. The classical scholar Charles Burney (1757–1817) bought the manuscript in 1814, paying the princely sum of £620. It was acquired by the British Museum as part of Burney’s library in 1818.


The bust of Homer in the Townley Homer (London, British Library, MS Burney 86, f. vi recto).

Many manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad survive today. The British Library alone holds ten others (almost all of which have now been digitised) as well as 33 Homeric papyri, of which all but three consist of extracts from the Iliad. Quite a few of the Homeric manuscripts contain annotations, known as scholia. Many of these scholia are concerned with textual criticism – their goal is to reconstruct the original text of the Iliad, and to strip away lines or passages believed to have been added later. Other scholia are primarily exegetical – that is, their main function is to explain the meaning of the text, perhaps by providing a synonym for an unfamiliar word, or by explaining something tricky or obscure. Many of the scholia to be found in Burney MS 86 are of this type.


The opening of Book 16 of the Iliad in the Townley Homer (London, British Library, MS Burney 86, f. 170v).

As an example of the material found in the scholia, take a look at the start of Book 16 of the Iliad, and the beginning of the famous scene in which the doomed Patroclus begs Achilles to lend him his armour, to defend the Greek ships. This page is particularly full of scholia, but others may have only a few comments in the margins. The text and the scholia are both written in black, and symbols in red link individual notes to the corresponding place in the text.


Detail of Book 16 of the Iliad (London, British Library, MS Burney 86, f. 170v).

The third line of Book 16 reads, in Greek, δάκρυα θερμὰ χέων ὥς τε κρήνη μελάνυδρος (“shedding hot tears like a spring with black water”), referring to Patroclus as he runs to find Achilles. A red symbol over the first two words in the line, δάκρυα θερμὰ, points the reader to the corresponding note in the left-hand margin, which states ‘The gentle Patroclus laments appropriately, since he has both heard and seen terrible things. So he is not able to cry out, being overwhelmed by his tears, but stands in silence, bringing pity upon himself because of his appearance. Similarly in the Litai (Iliad 9.433) Phoenix “burst into tears, for he feared greatly for the Greek ships”’ (εἰκότως ὁ πρᾷος Πάτροκλος κλαίει, τὰ μὲν ἀκοῇ τὰ δὲ αὐτοψεὶ τῶν δεινῶν ἐπισκοπἠσας. διὸ οὐδε φθέγξασθαί τι οἷος τε ἐστὶ συγκεχυμένος ὑπὸ τῶν δακρύων, ἀλλὰ σιωπῶν ἵσταται διὰ τοῦ σχήματος τὸν ἔλεον ἐπαγόμενος. καὶ ἐν ταῖς Λιταῖς ὁ Φοῖνιξ “δάκρυ’ ἀναπρήσας· περὶ γὰρ δίε νηυσὶν Ἀχαιῶν.”)

At the end of the line, the same commentator has added an interlinear note to explain the word μελάνυδρος (“with black water”), and a later hand has added another note near the beginning of the line, over the words θερμὰ χέων (“shedding hot [tears]”). These are both shorter notes, intended to explain unfamiliar words or potentially ambiguous phrasing.

As is clear from this one line, the scholia cover a wide range of approaches: not just matters of language and basic interpretation, but also more literary issues, such as the sensitive explanation of Patroclus’ tears. They give us an excellent insight into the sorts of things late antique and medieval readers found interesting, puzzling, or otherwise worthy of comment in the text of Homer.

Scholia on Greek and Latin manuscripts are generally edited and published in stand-alone volumes, separated from the texts they comment on. Thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the British Library is now able to present the Townley Homer online in its entirety, so that it is possible to view the scholia as they would have been seen and interpreted by earlier generations of readers.

If you want to know more about the manuscripts and scholia of Homer, visit the Homer Multitext Project.

Other Homeric manuscripts held by the British Library and available on Digitised Manuscripts:

Add MS 8232: Iliad, 1.1–337 with glosses and part of the commentary of Eustathius.

Add MS 17210: Iliad, fragments of Books 12–16 and 18–24, from a Syriac palimpsest.

Harley MS 1675: Iliad, Book 1, partly annotated and glossed in Latin.

Harley MS 1752: Homeric Hymns (a dozen of the shorter hymns).

Harley MS 1771: Iliad, with arguments, scholia and glosses in red ink.

Harley MS 5601: Batrachomyomachia and Iliad, both with glosses.

Harley MS 5658: Odyssey.

Harley MS 5664: Batrachomyomachia, with scholia and glosses.

Harley MS 5672: Iliad, selections from Books 2–4.

Harley MS 5673: Odyssey, with arguments and iambic verses added at the end.

Harley MS 5674: Odyssey, with scholia and glosses.

Harley MS 5693: Batrachomyomachia, with glosses, and Iliad, with partial scholia and glosses.

Harley MS 6301: Batrachomyomachia, with scholia and glosses.

Harley MS 6325: Odyssey, with arguments, scholia and glosses.

Further reading

Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem Townleyana, ed. E. Maass, Oxford 1887–88 (a critical edition of the scholia in the Townley Homer).

Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem, ed. H. Erbse, 5 vols, Berlin 1969–77 (the standard edition of the Homeric scholia).

E. Dickey, Ancient Greek Scholarship: A Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexica, and Grammatical Treatises, from Their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period, Oxford 2007 (an excellent introduction to Greek scholia and related texts).

Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, ed. C. Dué, Washington DC 2009 (online here).

02 August 2013

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons on BBC Four

A major television series featuring some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts is to air soon on BBC Four. Presented by Michael Wood, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons examines the careers of King Alfred the Great, the Lady Æthelflæd and King Athelstan respectively. Episode one, entitled "King Alfred", will be broadcast on Tuesday 6 August (21.00–22.00), and will then be available on the BBC iPlayer.



The beginning of King Alfred's will (London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v).


Alfred the Great (reigned 871–899) is perhaps the best-known Anglo-Saxon king. The son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded his three older brothers to the throne in 871. At that time, Viking invaders had conquered much of England, and Alfred struggled to prevent Wessex from succumbing to the same fate, until his victory over the Vikings at Edington in 878. Alfred's reign is also marked by the revival of learning – for example, he instructed that certain works be translated from Latin into English – and by the reform of the coinage, the issuing of new laws, and the creation of fortified towns (or "burghs"). Alfred's defence of Wessex, combined with his administrative reforms, ultimately paved the way for the formation of the kingdom of England during the 10th century.



A page from Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 71r).


Much of Michael Wood's television series was filmed on location at the British Library. The first episode promises to include Bald's Leechbook (BL MS Royal 12 D XVII) and the copy of Alfred's will found in the New Minster Liber Vitae (BL MS Stowe 944), the second of which can be seen in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. (You may also recall that we featured the other medieval copy of King Alfred's will in a recent blogpost.)

Episode one of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons is broadcast on BBC Four on 6 August (21:00–22:00). Episodes two and three will be screened on 13 August and 20 August.

01 August 2013

A Calendar Page for August 2013

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

The aristocratic pursuits which have so characterised this manuscript (see here for April, May, June and July) take a back seat in these scenes from the calendar pages for August.  In the opening full-page miniature, a man and a woman are pausing from their labours in the fields to take some refreshment; the man is holding out a bowl towards another woman, who bears a basket of food and a jug (one hopes that it is full of wine).  A dog with a studded collar plays nearby, while behind the resting pair more peasants are at work harvesting grain.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are engaged in the rather disquieting game of 'cock-throwing', hurling sticks at a bird that has been tied to a stake.  On the following page are the saints for August, and a small roundel miniature of a woman holding a flower, for the zodiac sign Virgo.  Below, another group of men are snaring birds, using an owl to attract them. 


Calendar page for August with a miniature of labourers harvesting grain and resting in the fields, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 25v


Calendar page for August with a bas-de-page scene of a men snaring birds, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 26r