Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from October 2013

31 October 2013

Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style

If Halloween has once again caught you unprepared, you may, like many of us, be desperately casting your mind about for a suitable get-up for this evening’s revelries.  Have no fear!  The Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section would like to offer the following last-minute costume ideas: 

A medieval fool:  some rags, a stick, a round loaf of bread, and a vacant expression are all that you will need for this particular get-up; see below.

Detail of an historiated initial ‘D’(ixit) of King David and the fool, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 150v

Detail of a miniature of the Fool, with a bauble, loaf and a dog, from Guyart de Moulins’ Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 241r

A memento mori:  Nothing could be easier!  Just wear a skeleton costume and carry around a banner reading 'Memento homo quod cinis es et in cinerem reverteris' (Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return) and you will provide an instant moral exemplar for everyone you meet. 

Egerton MS 1070 f. 53r c13671-08
Detail of a full-page miniature of a Memento Mori with a banner reading 'Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris', from The Hours of René d’Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 53r

Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, and a partial scatter border with gems and flowers including the motto ‘Memento homo’, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r

Vanno Fucci: This unlovely character is featured in Cantos 24 and 25 of Dante’s Inferno.  He stole treasure from the church of St James in the town of Pistoia, and accused an innocent man of the crime, who was then executed unjustly.  For his sins Vanno was condemned to an eternity of torment by the monster Cacus, who will attack him until the day of judgement.  This costume is a particularly easy one as it requires, well, nothing at all (except an angry monster and a willingness to abandon modesty).  Those seeking a slightly less revealing get-up may consider the damned soul being attacked by a serpent on the right, or perhaps, if you have a companion for the Halloween festivities, you might like to dress up as Dante and Virgil and wander around providing a moral commentary on all you observe.

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing Vanno Fucci, the pillager of a church in Pistoia, being attacked by the monster Cacus, who is half-centaur and half-dragon, and Dante and Virgil speaking to three other souls, tormented by snakes and lizards, in illustration of Canto XXV, from a copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany, possibly Siena), between 1444 and c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 46r

If you are lucky enough to be possessed of a number of fellow Halloween revelers, we have several suggestions for group costumes:

Wodewoses:  you will need a number of hairy suits, some false beards, clubs, and a predilection to dance, but you are guaranteed to be the life of any party (warning: some other guests may attempt to set you on fire, so be wary).

Detail of a miniature of burning costumes of the 'hommes sauvages' during a masked dance in Paris, at the beginning of chapter 32, from  Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, Vol. 4, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1480, Royal MS 18 E II, f. 206r

Harley MS 4380, f. 1r E070011
Detail of the Dance of the Wodewoses, from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, Vol. 4, part 2, Netherlands (Bruges), between c. 1470 and 1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:  this group costume necessitates some horses (or horse substitutes), and a level of agreement about who will be assigned which persona.  For reference, they are as follows:  White Horse – Conquest (sometimes Pestilence), Red Horse – War, Black Horse – Famine, and finally the Pale Horse – Death.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse (The 'Silos Apocalypse'), Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 102v

Personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins:  carrying off these get-ups successfully might require a bit more organization, the acquisition of props, and again, suitable mounts, but what could be more fun?

Detail of a miniature of a man with a sword riding a lion, as a personification of Pride (Orgueil), and a woman with a sword, riding a wolf, as a personification of Envy (Envie), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 159r

Detail of a miniature of a man riding on a donkey, head in hand, across a bridge, as a personification of Idleness (Peresse), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 162r

Detail of a miniature of a man riding a leopard and stabbing himself with a sword, as a personification of Anger (Ire), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 165v

Detail of a miniature of a wealthy man riding a wolf, carrying a sword and a chalice and followed by a servant with flagons of wine, as a personification of Gluttony (Gloutenie), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 168v

Detail of a miniature of a well-dressed woman riding a white goat, carrying arrows and a mirror, as a personification of Lust (Luxure); behind, David spying upon Bathsheba in her bath, in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 172v

Detail of a miniature of a man riding an ape, carrying a chest full of coins, with scales and money on a table behind him, as a personification of Avarice (Auerrice), in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 174r

Please do let us know if you have any other suggestions for us; you can leave a comment below or on Twitter @BLMedieval.  And of course, if you proceed with any of these costume ideas, please please send us pictures!  Happy Halloween!

- Sarah J Biggs

28 October 2013

Precious Papyri

The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of Greek papyri in the world, including the longest and most significant papyrus of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, unique copies of major texts such as Sophocles’ Ichneutae, and the Egerton Gospel, as well as a wide range of important documentary papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Aphrodito, Hibeh, Tebtunis, and the Fayum.  The Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum was at the forefront of the new discipline of papyrology at the turn of the nineteenth century, and many of our predecessors are well-known to anyone who has ever consulted a text preserved on papyrus:  Kenyon, Bell, and Skeat, to name just three.

Latin deed of the sale of a slave boy, Papyrus 229 (P. Lond. I 229)

Today, we are happy to announce that selected key papyri have been digitised and are now available to view on Digitised Manuscripts, along with completely new catalogue descriptions.  Five papyri are available online now, and two more items will appear in the coming weeks (watch out for a separate post here on our blog!).  The items now online are:

Papyrus 229 (P. Lond. I 229):  Latin deed of the sale of a slave boy, retaining the seals of its signatories

Papyrus 1531 (P. Oxy. IV 654/P. Lond. Lit. 222):  Fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, in Greek

Fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, Papyrus 1531 (P. Oxy. IV 654/P. Lond. Lit. 222)

Papyrus 2052 (P. Oxy. VIII 1073/P. Lond. Lit. 200):  Fragment of Old Latin Genesis, from a parchment codex

Papyrus 2068 (P. Oxy. IX 1174/P. Lond. Lit. 67):  Sophocles, Ichneutae

Egerton Papyrus 2 (P. Lond. Christ. 1/P. Egerton 2):  The Egerton Gospel

Fragment of a Gospel, Egerton Papyrus 2 (P. Lond. Christ. 1/P. Egerton 2)

(A note on shelfmarks:  The British Library’s method of referencing papyri is according to inventory number. This does not always correspond to the number by which the papyrus is more widely known in its published catalogue, be that P. Lond., P. Oxy., or other.  The catalogue entries on Digitised Manuscripts give full cross-references for papyri for ease of use.  Further details on how to match inventory and catalogue numbers can be found in the British Library’s Manuscripts Collection Reader Guide 4: The Papyrus Collections.)

- Cillian O'Hogan

24 October 2013

The Etheridge Encomium

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you probably already know that the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts covers a wide variety of subjects and spans a very broad chronological period: from Homer to hagiography, from Babrius to the Bible, from Menander papyri to musical manuscripts from the 19th century.  One group of Greek manuscripts you may be less familiar with, however, form part of our Royal collections, and consist of a number of laudatory or complimentary verses and prose compositions, in Latin and Greek, dedicated to Elizabeth I, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, Charles I, and Henry, Earl of Arundel.  These compositions were usually (though not always) written by members of public schools, such as Eton or Winchester, or of Oxford colleges. Most of these manuscripts will be digitised and made available online in the coming years.

Prose dedication to Elizabeth I by George Etheridge, Royal MS 16 C X, f. 1r

One manuscript from this group, however, has already been treated in extensive detail.  Royal MS 16 C X contains the autograph Greek Encomium on Henry VIII by George Etheridge, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, which was addressed to Queen Elizabeth I and delivered on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Oxford in 1566.  The text gives us a fascinating insight into the author and how his life and career was impacted by events relating to the English Reformation, while also providing us with important information about Greek studies in Tudor England (Etheridge’s post, the Regius Professorship of Greek, was after all established by Henry VIII).  It also reflects the national concern for Elizabeth’s succession as a precondition for the security of the kingdom.

A project to digitise and edit the manuscript was undertaken by researchers at the Hellenic Institute in the History Department of Royal Holloway, University of London, and at the British Library, and an electronic edition can now be viewed online both on both Digitised Manuscripts and on a dedicated website hosted by the Hellenic Institute.  On this website, you can view the manuscript side-by side with a transcription, an edition, and a translation of the Greek text.  The site also contains a number of extremely helpful essays about George Etheridge, the text of the encomium, and the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts.

To view the manuscript and learn more about the project, please visit the homepage of the Etheridge Project.

-  Cillian O'Hogan

22 October 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Back in Treasures

Regular visitors to the British Library may be aware that some of our greatest treasures are often to be found on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. At the time of writing you can see medieval manuscripts such as Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Luttrell Psalter; and we're delighted to announce that the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is a new addition to that list.


Canon table in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 14v).

Now on display in London are two pages from the canon tables which preface the Lindisfarne Gospels. This Northumbrian gospel-book, renowned for its lavish carpet-pages and miniatures of the four evangelists, was made at the beginning of the 8th century, according to a colophon added some 250 years later (f. 259r). The canon tables provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one evangelist. Those tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels are notable for the intricate ornamentation of the columns, and for the rich palette of reds and blues, found elsewhere in the decoration of the manuscript.


Detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels canon table (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 15r).

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. You may also like to know that the Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

18 October 2013

Guess the Manuscript VIII

We're going to try something different with our latest instalment of Guess the Manuscript. The image below can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, as usual. Here's how we're going to be tricksy, though: we'll be sending out a series of further clues over the next few days on our Twitter account. Be sure to follow us @BLMedieval so you can solve this mystery. Good luck!


If anyone is clever enough to solve this before the first clue is sent out, your prize will be a life-size statue of yourself, to be placed on the main piazza of the British Library, accompanied by a parade and black-tie gala (subject to approval from the relevant authorities, of course). 

14 October 2013

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

Do you suffer from asthma, warts or hiccups? Are you fed up with modern medical remedies? If so, we are pleased to tell you that How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies, by Julian Walker, has just been published by the British Library. Here the author describes for us the state of Anglo-Saxon medicine.

An opening from Bald's Leechbook, showing medical recipes in Old English.

Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, Royal MS 12 D XVII, ff. 20v-21r. 

Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex mix of charms, the remnants of classical theories and practice, pragmatic folklore, and faith-healing; despite a longstanding reputation for worthlessness, it was perhaps more based on observation than the reliance on astrology and the theory of humours that marked the medicine of the later medieval period. Sometimes the presence of an odd superstition colours the whole, for example in a fairly accurate account of foetal development, which ends by suggesting that a foetus unborn after the 10th month could be fatal to the mother, but mostly on a Monday night. But there are frequent records of practices which are eminently sensible and probably effective.

The oldest surviving medical documents in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and Lacnunga are the most complete texts, all of them in the British Library. Bald’s Leechbook contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, so the learning was by no means isolated. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, there are directions for the use of materia medica traded from distant areas, frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

500 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, medical practice relied less on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates, but there remained the process of diagnosis by urine-examination and the therapy of balancing the humours by bleeding. Bloodletting was widely used, sometimes causing infection itself, which was treated by herbal poultices; if the bleeding got out of control it could be stopped with horse-dung. A practical side to the control of infection is seen in the injunction not to let blood in summer, when infection would be most likely. There are warnings against taking too much blood, for example ‘if you let too much blood then there is no hope for his life’; presumably this happened on occasion. 

The opening page of an Anglo-Saxon miscellany containing medical recipes.

Anglo-Saxon medical recipes corresponding to Book 2, Chapter 59 of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library Harley MS 55, f. 1r)

There is little documentation of surgery, compared to other forms of healing, though the archaeological record indicates some successful trepanation, and later there are some gruesome images of how to treat haemorrhoids. The use of splints for broken limbs is mentioned only twice, texts offering salves and poultices as treatment for fractures. Wounds are to be sewn up with silk, which would gradually dissolve – there is even a description of surgery to correct a harelip. Poultices that had antiseptic effects were applied over sutured wounds, with herbs such as lesser centaury used to help healing.

The use of herbs, individually or together, was of great importance in medicine at this time; though there are difficulties in finding exactly corresponding names in the modern flora, many common native plants found some use in medicine. Imported plant matter was often added, so that a recipe in the Lacnunga for a wen salve includes pepper and ginger as well as radish, chervil, fennel, garlic and sage, in a list of 16 plants. Tested through the centuries, herbal remedies connect the past to the present – Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain, similar ointments being commercially available now. Leechbook III contains a large number of remedies using only native ingredients; their names are not Anglicised Latin names, implying that this reflects a largely home-grown practice.

Materials other than herbs were also in use. One recipe, quoted in How to Cure the Plague, recommends eating buck’s liver for night vision loss, and indeed the Vitamin A in liver would help this condition. Unlike in Mediterranean medical practice, the use of animal faeces is recommended only rarely, but spittle, snails, urine, worms, weevils and ants are called for, as well as the less startling pigeon’s blood, lard and ale. On occasions the improbable and the feasible were combined, one recipe for a burn including silver filings, bear’s grease, thyme, rose petals and verbena.

A detail from Bald's Leechbook, showing medical recipes in Old English.

Detail of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 20v).

Though learning was largely connected to the church, not all physicians were clerics. Prayers and charms were both used, but possibly the charms were less likely to be adminstered by priests. No doubt many charms worked through assurance and faith. One area that has interested me for a long time is the process of healing by touch at a remove. Bede, writing in the 8th century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. While raising questions about the nature of touch and its continuing relevance (the desire to touch celebrities, the fascination of the possessions of the famous), this also provides an exact mirror to germ theory, and a model for both contagion and healing.

In our world of healthcare systems in crisis and general reliance on prescription or non-prescription medicines and a variety of alternative therapies, we are not so far from the charms and prayers, the herbal folklore and amulets of the Anglo-Saxons. Their frequent use of the number nine in healing rituals (charms or prayers are directed to be repeated nine times) may have been a way of marking the period of time for a salve to take effect or a mixture to boil, or may have been a ritual. A shadow of the ritualistic element perhaps survives in directions for antibiotics to be taken ‘three times a day for seven days’.

How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies is available from the British Library Shop, priced £10 (ISBN 9780712357012).

Julian Walker

10 October 2013

British Library Ivories in the Gothic Ivories Project

Regular readers of our blog will (hopefully) already be using the magnificent website of the Gothic Ivories Project.  This project is based at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is dedicated to producing a database which aims to include all the readily available information on every surviving Gothic and neo-Gothic ivory, accompanied by at least one image.  The focus of the project is on objects made in Europe dating from c. 1200 - c. 1530 (excluding Embriachi work) and also modern imitations.  The online database now contains data about 3,800 objects from nearly 300 museums around the world; these objects are illustrated by more than 10,000 images.  Ultimately it will be possible to view in one place images and detailed information on about 5,000 pieces. 

Like the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the Gothic Ivories online resource allows wide-ranging searches on iconography, provenance, and origin.  Now, two British Library manuscripts with ivory plaques inserted into their bindings have been included in the project.

The first is an English ivory, found on the cover of Add MS 10301, an English Legendary from the end of the 14th century.

Add MS 10301 front binding c13120-01
14th century ivory panel of the Crucifixion with Mary and John the Evangelist, with a dragon in the lower border, and two rosettes in the spandrels, Add MS 10301

And the second is a French ivory, now inserted into the binding of Add MS 36615, a 14th century French copy of Le Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon.

Add Ms 36615 front binding B20083-42
14th century ivory fragment, probably originally from a casket with scenes from Arthurian romance, including: Gawain in armour fighting the lion; Lancelot, driven by his love for Guinevere, crossing the sword bridge while spears and darts fall on him from the sky; Gawain, at the Castle of Merveille, sleeping with his own sword on the perilous bed; and the three maidens at the Castle of Merveille, Add MS 36615

The British Library's images have been included in the Gothic Ivories website under our new Public Domain policy.

- Kathleen Doyle and Catherine Yvard

07 October 2013

Fancy Another Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

As promised back in July, we have an updated list of digitised manuscripts to offer you, our loyal readers.  This master list contains details of everything that has so far been uploaded by the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department, complete with hyperlinks to each individual record on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  You can download the Excel spreadsheet here:   Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 07.10.13

Miniature of King Alfonso V praising our spreadsheet as Bishop Juan de Casanova looks on, from the Prayerbook of Alfonso V of Aragon - a new arrival to our list! produced in Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443, Add MS 28962, f. 14v

We should have another new list for you in 3 months - happy hyperlink clicking!

- Sarah J Biggs

Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at:
Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects. - See more at: