Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from December 2013

31 December 2013

One Million Hits and Counting!

It would be impossible for us to convey in words our excitement at reaching the milestone of one million hits to our blog, so we won't even try!  Below are a few images that come close to adequately representing our feelings.  Thank you all so much for your comment and your support, and we look forward to bringing you much more manuscript joy in future!

Detail of a friar playing music and a nun dancing, from the Maastricht Hours, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r

Detail of dancers during 'la karole damours', from the Roman de la Rose, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 9r

Add MS 27695 f. 14r K057778
Detail of people drinking, from a treatise on the Seven Vices, Add MS 27695, f. 14r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison

30 December 2013

Papyrus Unbound

While we have very many fragments of papyrus codices, and of early medieval parchment codices, it is not quite so common for late antique or early medieval bindings to survive.  The most famous bindings of papyrus codices are undoubtedly those from Nag Hammadi, dating from the third or fourth centuries.  Of course, the best-known early binding in the British Library’s possession is the St Cuthbert Gospel!

The digitisation of Papyrus 1442 (P. Lond. IV 1419) means that one of these early bindings, from a tax register written at Aphrodito in Egypt in 716-717, can now be viewed in great detail online.  The binding is a limp leather covering, lined with papyrus.

Exterior of the binding, Papyrus 1442

It retains its flap, which would probably have had a leather wrapping band attached, to keep the codex closed.  These early leather bindings were formed from the hide of a sheep or goat, and it was often the case that skin from the animal’s neck would be used to form the flap.  One point where this binding seems to differ from those of the earlier Nag Hammadi codices is in the shape of the flap: the Nag Hammadi flaps are generally simple triangles or rectangles.  Here, however, the flap has a bit more of a stylised shape (which seems to be intentional, and not simply a result of later damage to the binding).

Detail of the exterior of the binding, enhanced to show decoration detail, Papyrus 1442

The cover has a decoration which is fairly typical of Coptic decoration. In the centre, there is a circle around a six-pointed star, with additional interlaced and undulating patterns around the border. The decoration is drawn on with ink or paint (see above).

A look at the inside of the cover will give a better sense of how the codex itself was constructed.

Interior of the binding, Papyrus 1442

It is clear from the single line of holes in the spine that this was a 'single quire' codex, that is, it was constructed by laying all the unfolded sheets one above another on top of the binding, piercing the sheets in the middle, and folding them.  At some point, the binding came loose, and a number of leaves had already been lost from the book by the time it arrived at the British Museum.  Some of these are now in Berlin (P. Berol. inv. 25006).

- Cillian O'Hogan

27 December 2013

Your Favourite Manuscript: The Results

Recently we asked the loyal readers of our blog and our Twitter followers (@BLMedieval) to name their favourite manuscript. We were chuffed to receive so many responses, and here is a small selection of your favourites. Some people did nominate books and manuscripts in Cambridge, Oxford, Paris and elsewhere (shame!), but we're going to restrict this list to medieval manuscripts in the British Library's collections. Well, we would, wouldn't we? Nobody went for Beowulf, interestingly -- we're assuming that's a massive oversight on your part. But they're all great choices, we think you'll find, and impossible to pick a winner!

The Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352), nominated by Gretchen McKay, and shown below


The Caligula Troper (Cotton MS Caligula A XIV), nominated by James Aitcheson

The De Brailes Hours (Add MS 49999), nominated by @mediumaevum and Jennifer Lyons, and shown below


Gregory the Great (Cotton MS Tiberius B XI), nominated by Kevin Jackson

The Bristol Psalter (Add MS 40731), nominated by Robert Miller


A Dutch chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius E VI), nominated by Sjoerd Levelt

A burnt Royal manuscript (Royal MS 9 C X), nominated by Andrew Prescott, and shown below


Leonardo da Vinci (Arundel MS 263), nominated by @maxinthebox

The New Minster Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944), nominated by @saxonbowman, and shown below


Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes (Arundel MS 38), nominated by @melibeus1

The Huth Hours (Add MS 38126), nominated by @bxknits, and shown below


An Icelandic manuscript (Add MS 4860), nominated by @SMcDWer

The Luttrell Psalter (Add MS 42130), nominated by Damien Kempf, and shown below


The Travels of John Mandeville (Add MS 24189), nominated by David Jupe, whose wife, Barbara, plumped for the Luttrell Psalter.


Julian Harrison

25 December 2013

Happy Christmas from the Medieval Manuscripts Team

The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts team would like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Prosperous New Year. We hope that you enjoy these Nativity scenes from the glorious Huth Hours, one of our 15th-century Flemish illuminated manuscripts (Add MS 38126, ff. 75v, 79v, 83v).







23 December 2013

Medieval Top Ten

It’s that time of the year when we all look back at what we have accomplished (and also when we so frequently resort to clichés like ‘it’s that time of year’).  It has been a fantastic 12 months for our blog, due in large part to our fabulous readers.  We thought we’d take this chance to highlight our ten most popular posts, which were chosen by you (or at least chosen by your clicks!).  In true countdown fashion, we’ll start with:

10.  Anglo-Saxon Treasures Online the announcement about our department’s very first uploads to Digitised Manuscripts (it seems so long ago!); we were off to an excellent start with the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Old English Hexateuch.

Beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r

9.  Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts Online an exciting announcement about the inclusion of more than 100 Hebrew manuscripts to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts site, with a full list of hyperlinks included!

Add MS 15282 f. 296v a80062-21a
Initial word panel Shir (‘song’ inhabited by a unicorn and a bear, from the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, Add MS 15282, f. 296v

8.  Robert the Bruce Letter Found at British Library a post highlighting the exciting discovery by Professor Dauvit Broun, University of Glasgow, of a previously-unknown letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II.

Robert the Bruce letter
Detail of the letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II, Cotton MS Titus A XIX, f. 87r

7.  St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation a celebration of the British Library’s acquisition of the late 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel after the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library’s history.  Now in our collections as Add MS 89000, you can now view the fully-digitised manuscript online.

CF034939 jpgcropped
Front binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Add MS 89000

6.  White Gloves or Not White Gloves not to wreck the surprise or anything, but the answer (almost always) is not.


5.  Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library another amazing discovery by our unstoppable research team! We’ll just leave it at that.

Project Y final desaturated 27.03.13
Image of the Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©

4.  Hwæt! Beowulf Online we were thrilled to publicise the digitization of one of the Library’s great treasures, the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV; click the link for the fully-digitised version).  And many of you seemed equally thrilled!

Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f. 132r
Detail of the opening words of Beowulf: ‘Hwæt!’ (‘Listen!’), Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

3.  Lolcats of the Middle Ages far and away the most popular post from our on-going series on medieval animals – for obvious reasons, we think.

Harley MS 6563 f. 72r K048420
Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat, from a Book of Hours, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r

2.  Knight v Snail this piece on the prevalence of images of knights fighting snails in the margins of 13th and 14th century manuscripts was great fun to write, and it was even more enjoyable to see the fantastic response it received.  It set a British Library record for the most hits in a single day, was picked up by the Guardian, and most gratifying, many of you wrote in with some excellent thoughts on this mysterious marginalia; thank you so much! 

Detail of a knight battling a snail in the margins of a 14th century Psalter, Add MS 49622, f. 193v

So now, with no further ado, we come to…

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  the discovery of this gem of a manuscript, shrouded in secrecy for months, met with an amazing reaction when it was finally revealed on 1 April 2012, and it continues to be a perennial favourite.

Unicorn Grill detail
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule’s cookbook, Additional MS 142012, f. 137r

Thanks from all of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section!  Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

20 December 2013

Important Notice: Temporary Closure of the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery


We would like to inform you that the Sir John Ritblat: Treasures of the British Library Gallery will be closed to the public from 14 February until 7 March of 2014 so that essential refurbishment works can be carried out.  The gallery will reopen in March with a fresh look; the carpets will be replaced, cases updated, and improved lighting systems installed.  The manuscripts currently in the gallery must be taken off display for safekeeping during this three week period, but we are already planning for new items to be shown as soon as the gallery reopens.  We’ll bring you any further updates here on the blog as they become available, and look forward to sharing our revamped display area with you soon.

- Sarah J Biggs

18 December 2013

Put It In Your Pocket

This small format copy of the Gospels (one of our most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts) is about the size of a modern pocket dictionary and was produced in Ireland in the late eighth or early ninth century.  The original work contained initials with interlace decoration and miniatures of the Evangelists, of which only the portrait of  St Luke remains (see below).  The stylised image of Luke is within a framework containing zoomorphic patterns characteristic of Irish decoration in this period.

Evangelist miniature of St Luke, Ireland, 750-850, Add MS 40618, f. 21v

To make the book small and portable, a tiny pointed Irish minuscule script has been used, written with a very fine quill pen, and there are numerous abbreviations throughout.  Some are based on the shorthand devised by Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, in the Classical period, and revived for use in the copying of scholarly and religious texts in the 8th century.  For example, on line 1 of the right hand column below, ‘÷’ stands for est in factus est.

Text page with decorated initials 'In P'(rincipio), Ireland, 750-850, Add MS 40618, f. 50r

This Gospel book from Ireland was still in use in England in the 10th century and was ‘modernised’ at this time. The original interlace initials were scratched off with a knife, and Anglo-Saxon style initials with zoomorphic decoration were painted over.  Of particular interest is that this is the earliest surviving example of the use of lapis lazuli in a manuscript in Britain (see Michelle Brown (2007), p. 17).

At the same time, two miniatures painted in the mid 10th century were inserted.  One is of St Luke again, this time in profile, seated on a large cushioned throne with an ox (his Evangelist symbol) emerging from the drapery above his head, holding a golden book.

Added miniature of St Luke, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f. 22v

The style of this miniature and the one of St John below is characteristic of Canterbury manuscripts; they are richly painted, with a generous use of gold and brightly coloured pigments. However, the copious hanging drapery visible in both images is more a feature of Carolingian style and these examples are unique in Anglo-Saxon illumination.

Added miniature of St John, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f. 49v

The last page of St John’s Gospel was re-written, as the colophon on f. 66v states, by an Anglo-Saxon scribe, Eduardus diaconus, probably at the same time that the decoration was added.  It has been suggested that there are stylistic and technical links with additions to other manuscripts created on behalf of King Athelstan, such as those in the Athelstan Psalter (Cotton MS Galba A XVIII).

Added final page of St John’s gospel with scribal colophon, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f.66r

- Chantry Westwell

16 December 2013

An Old World View of the New

It is not often that our medieval manuscript curators have the opportunity to work on any material that concerns the Americas, but it does occasionally happen.  While we were preparing for the recent upload of Add MS 33733, we came across one miniature within that volume that contains a remarkable, if troubling, view of the New World and its inhabitants.

Detail of a miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

Add MS 33733 is more commonly known as The Triumphs of Charles V.  It is made up of a series of 12 miniatures illustrating episodes from the reign of Emperor Charles V of Spain (1500-1558), accompanied by quatrains in Spanish explaining each scene.  It was possibly produced for Philip II, the son of Charles V and King of Spain and Portugal (1527-1598), and dates from the 3rd quarter of the 16th century.  For many years the exquisite miniatures in the Triumphs were attributed to Giorgio Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), a noted Croatian artist who spent most of his working life in Italy and was active in the same circles as Michelangelo.  Recent scholars, however, believe it is more likely that the paintings were produced by a follower or pupil of Clovio, who based his work on a series of engravings published in Antwerp in 1556 by Hieronymus Cock. Whatever the artist’s name might have been, the illuminations he created throughout the manuscript are both impressively executed and breathtakingly detailed.  He was clearly inspired by the momumental painting style of the era, even going so far as to include a suitable gilt frame around each miniature. 

Detail of a miniature of the Duke of Cleves submitting to Charles V, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 12r

Considering the title of the manuscript, it is unsurprising that the majority of the illuminations depict a notable moment of military or political triumph for the Emperor Charles V (see above).  But one seems to be an outlier.  On f. 10r can be found the miniature below, an illustration of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530.

Detail of a miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

This disquieting scene is accompanied by a quatrain on the facing folio (f. 9v), which reads:

Los Indios que hasta aquí de carne humana / Pacían como fieros y indomados / Con virtud y con fuerça soberana / Los veys por César ya domesticados.

A very loose translation: ‘The Indians, who until now had gorged themselves on human flesh like wild and untamed beings, by the virtue and sovereign power of Charles have been domesticated’.

The association of native Americans with cannibalism goes back to nearly the first moment of European contact with these lands.  In fact, the very word ‘cannibal’ itself is derived from ‘Canib’ (or 'Carib'), the name of a tribe of people who lived in the West Indies at the time of Columbus’ arrival.  In his diary Columbus recorded that the neighbouring Taino people ‘have said that they are greatly afraid of the Caniba’.  Several historians have pointed out that Columbus’ use of the word ‘said’ could charitably be described as problematic, since most of his communication with indigenous peoples was carried out through hand gestures, but later attempts at armed resistance on the part of the Caniba solidified his opinion of them as nearly-inhuman savages.

Detail of a miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

In a 1494 despatch to the Spanish court, Columbus advocated the enslavement of ‘these cannibals, a people very savage and suitable for the purpose, and well-made and of good intelligence.’ Queen Isabella agreed, and in 1503 declared that any of the ‘said cannibals’ who resisted Spanish authority or conversion to Christianity could be legally taken as slaves by the conquistadors.  This provided a significant incentive for the conquering Spaniards to describe any newly-encountered people as savages and cannibals, and gory descriptions of these ‘inhuman’ tribes and their practices abound in their accounts. 

Detail of a miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

Isabella’s edict was reconfirmed by a number of subsequent rulers of Spain, including Charles V himself.  Enslavement was viewed as a fitting punishment for those intransigent enough to refuse either conquest or conversion, but it was also considered beneficial for the slaves themselves, who could be civilized and saved from eternal damnation.  With this in mind, it becomes clear why the scene of carnage above would have been viewed by his contemporaries as one of Charles V’s ‘triumphs’.  It is disturbing to think that the subjugation and near-annihilation of an entire race of people could have become an object of royal pride, but it did.  We sometimes describe certain of our manuscripts as having ‘long shadows’, reaching back into the past and still touching us today; this one casts a longer shadow than most. 

- Sarah J Biggs