Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from December 2013

13 December 2013

Guess the Manuscript X

In honour of the tenth instalment of our award-wining (we wish) Guess the Manuscript series, we thought we would highlight a common feature of many of our manuscripts - that of later interventions. This diplomatic phrase covers a lot of ground, and can be used to describe everything from doodles to ownership inscriptions to erasures or corrections. The manuscript this image comes from has had quite a few of these sorts of interventions, as you can plainly see. As always, this image can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, so happy hunting! Additional kudos will accrue to you if you can tell us who was responsible for these additions (and even more if you can tell us why). 


You can leave your guesses in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval. And a word of thanks from us: we have been overwhelmed by your responses to this series, and extremely impressed by your researching abilities; we hope we can continue to challenge you over the coming months and years!


11 December 2013

The Constitution of Athens

Of all the Greek papyri now in the British Library, perhaps the most treasured, and certainly the most visually striking, is the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, which describes the development of the Athenian Constitution down to 403 BC, and the operation of the government at the time of writing in the 330s or 320s BC.  The work is one of some 158 constitutions of Greek city-states known in antiquity to have been produced by the school of Aristotle (or perhaps by Aristotle himself).  Until the end of the nineteenth century, this text was known only from brief quotations by later authors, and the text seemed to be one of those key works from antiquity that we would never retrieve.

The beginning of the Constitution of Athens (Ἀθηναίων Πολιτεία), 78 – c 100, Papyrus 131.

Then, in the space of a decade or so, two separate discoveries were made.  In 1879, two leaves from a papyrus codex were acquired by the Ägyptische Museum in Berlin, dating perhaps from the second century AD and containing fragments, with marginalia, of the Constitution of Athens (These leaves are now P. Berol. 5009, formerly P. Berol. 163).  In 1890, three rolls, followed shortly afterwards by a fourth, arrived at the British Museum in London.  The rolls were quickly identified as containing the Constitution of Athens by Frederic G. Kenyon (aged only twenty-seven, and just recently hired by the Department of Manuscripts), and the discovery was announced publicly in The Times in January 1891.  A critical edition by Kenyon followed (significantly revised in subsequent editions), as did an English-language translation.  The rolls were framed and hung in the Reading Room of the British Museum for many years.

Section of the Constitution of Athens (Ἀθηναίων Πολιτεία), in its frame, 78 – c 100, Papyrus 131.

Yet to refer to the papyrus as the Constitution of Athens is to tell only part of the story.  In fact, the rolls had initially been used to record farm accounts of an estate near Hermopolis, in Egypt, in 78-79 AD.  The other side (the verso) of the first roll was initially used to record part of a commentary on Demosthenes’ speech In Midiam.  Some time around the end of the first century, the Constitution of Athens was recorded on the verso of all four rolls, and the column and a half of the commentary on Demosthenes was crossed out.

Section including the crossed-out commentary on Demosthenes, Papyrus 131.

At this time (the writing of the Constitution), some additional papyrus was attached to the end of this roll, to accommodate the eleventh column of the Constitution of Athens (now on the far left of f. 2r, or the far right of f. 2v).  On the recto of this additional papyrus are some fragments of scholia (comments) on Callimachus’ Aetia, though whether this was written before or after the section was added to the papyrus roll is uncertain.  Papyrus was frequently re-used in this way, and many other papyri in the British Library’s collection contain multiple texts (see, for example, the Gospel of Thomas, written on the back of a survey list).

For more information about the papyrus, and for further reading, see the catalogue entry either on Digitised Manuscripts or on SOCAM.

- Cillian O'Hogan

09 December 2013

What's Your Favourite Manuscript?

Earlier this year, a selection of the British Library's medieval manuscripts featured in a special article in the FT Weekend Magazine. For those of you who missed this first time round, those manuscripts included (drumroll, please) Beowulf, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, the Golf Book and the Harley Golden Gospels. Not your typical medieval books -- you can read the accompanying blogpost here, with links to digital images of the manuscripts in question.


This is one of our favourites, what about you? The miniature of St John in the 9th-century Harley Golden Gospels: London, British Library, MS Harley 2788, f. 161v.

Alice Fishburn, auuthor of the article, interviewed a number of the British Library's curators as part of the feature. And one question we were all asked was: "what's your favourite manuscript?". As I recall, a couple of curators plumped for the Harley Golden Gospels, on account of its sheer beauty and its shimmering golden letters; another colleague took the safer option, and preferred not to nominate a favourite manuscript, on the grounds that each and every one is a unique artefact, with its own intrinsic interest.


You may like to nominate a manuscript from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, like this 12th-century Canterbury passionale: London, British Library, MS Arundel 91, f. 36v.

That got us thinking -- what is your favourite manuscript? We'd love to hear from you, and in the coming weeks we'll add a selection to an updated version of this post. You might choose something from the Anglo-Saxon era, say, or a 15th-century Book of Hours, or maybe that dusty old tome which you studied for your dissertation, the one which had lain overlooked for years but which you fell in love with. No rules apply, save to say that we'd prefer it if your favourite came from the British Library's collections! You may like a little help, so have a look at our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.


Does Leonardo da Vinci rock your boat? Let us know! London, Britiash Library, MS Arundel 263, ff. 84v + 88r.

So there's your challenge for this week. Send your nominations by Twitter to @blmedieval, or as a comment at the end of this post. It would be lovely if you could tell us in a few words why a particular manuscript is so special to you. And we will try to acknowledge each and every response.

Julian Harrison

05 December 2013

Happy Hanukkah!

Today is the last day of Hanukkah; the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section hopes you have had (and will continue to have) a very happy Festival of Lights - Hanukkah Sameach!

Add MS 15250 f. 3v c00370-09b
Full-page miniature of a menorah surrounded by Temple instruments, from a Hebrew Bible (the 'Duke of Sussex's Catalan Bible) with masorah magna and parva, Spain (Catalonia), 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 15250, f. 3v

  King's MS 1, f. 3r c13587-87
Full-page miniature of a menorah surrounded by Temple instruments, from a Hebrew Bible (the 'King's Bible), Spain (Catalonia), last quarter of the 14th century, Kings MS 1, f. 3r

Or 5024, f. 19r detail c13582-35
Detail of a man lighting the Hanukkah lamp, from Decisions of Isaiah of Trani the Younger (Pisqei Rabbi Yeshayah Aharon), Italy (Bologna), 1374, Or 5024, f. 19r

04 December 2013

The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel

Part holy shrine, part legendary castle, the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most romantic spots in Europe; it has been a site of miracles and the destination of countless pilgrims for over a thousand years. The story goes that in 708 the archangel Michael told Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, to build a church on Mont Tombe for him. St Aubert ignored him at first, but the archangel returned and reputedly burned a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger. The Bishop realized that he could ignore the archangel no longer and Mont Tombe was dedicated to Michael on October 16, 708. St Aubert built the first church on the island and it has been known as Mont Saint-Michel ever since.

Mont Saint-Michel as viewed along the Couesnon River, photo by David Iliff (via Wikipedia Commons, license: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The verse history of Mont Saint-Michel or Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel was composed by Guillaume de Saint-Paier, (now Saint-Pois in the diocese of Avranches), who was a young monk in the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in the time of the abbot Robert of Torigni, between 1154 and 1186. His work, written in the Norman dialect of Old French c. 1160, is based on Latin texts and charters found in a 12th-century cartulary of the monastery (Avranches, BM 210) and in later copies. In the prologue Guillaume says that he wrote the Roman to instruct pilgrims who did not know the history of the monastery.  The British Library has the only two surviving medieval copies of the work and a new arrival on our Digitised Manuscripts website is the earliest copy, which dates from the last quarter of the 13th century (Add MS 10289). This manuscript has been in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for some time, with a small selection of images, but now every page is available to view. The text is of great interest to historians of Western Normandy and scholars of the Norman dialect, for which it is an early example.

Detail of a painting of Mont Saint Michel burning, from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel',
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The monastery is shown engulfed in flames in this image in the lower margin.  The buildings fell into disrepair after a severe fire in 922 and in 966 Richard, Duke of Normandy, established an order of Benedictine monks there, who started to reconstruct the church. They brought in craftsmen from Italy and started work in 1017. The abbey was finished in 1080 and pilgrims flocked to the island to worship St Michael, even when the abbey was in English hands much later, during the Hundred Years War. The Monks of Mont Saint-Michel were revered for their copying skills and there has been a library there since the 10th century. Our manuscript has an inscription, Iste liber est de thesauraria montis running along the right-hand margin on f. 1, showing that it was in the library in the 15th century.

Historiated initial 'M'(olz) of two pilgrims at the beginning of 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' and inscription in the margin,
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 1r

When the Maurists took over control of the monastery from the Benedictines in the 17th century, they reorganised the books and manuscripts, and they wrote ex-libris inscriptions in many of the books, Ex monasterio sancti Michaelis in periculo maris (‘From the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, in danger from the sea’).  But it was the destructive force of humanity, rather than the sea that posed the greatest danger to the monks and their library.  During the French Revolution the libraries of nobles and monasteries were confiscated for the public and the 3550 books and 299 manuscripts from the abbey were piled into carts, guarded by the National Guard, and crossed the sands to the mainland. They were piled in a damp storeroom in the municipal offices of Avranches, together with other monastic archives and in 1835, when they were catalogued by la Société d’archéologie d’Avranches, only 199 remained. At this time they were moved to the new Hotel de Ville and remain in the collections of the city of Avranches.

Our manuscript was already in the hands of an English collector, Richard Heber, by this time, and was purchased from him by the British Museum in 1836.

The ‘Romance of Mont Saint-Michel’ is only a third of the volume.  The rest is a collection of moralistic and religious texts and medical recipes, including a recipe for a lotion to whiten the skin

Recipe for ‘Ognement espruve por blanchir’ on the lower half of the page,
France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 81v

On ff. 129v-132v can be found Andre de Coutances Le romanz des Franceis or Arflet, a violent anti-French satire composed in around 1200.  It was written in response to a French satire, in which King Arthur/Alfred is portrayed as Arflet, le roi des buveurs, a drunken Northumbrian king whose crown is usurped by the cat, Chapalu.  De Coutances defends the English by attacking meagre French cuisine and mocking their reputation as dice-players and cowards in the face of battle.  Their king, Frollo, is lazy and even lies in bed while his boots are being fastened.

The satire begins, ‘Reis Arflet de Nohundrelande...’ and is written in four-line verses or laisses, each beginning with a coloured initial.

Text page with the opening lines of the satire,
Arflet or Le romanz des franceis, France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 129v

- Chantry Westwell

02 December 2013

Magna Carta Internship 2014

British Library Volunteer Programme 2014

Magna Carta Project, Department of History and Classics 

The British Library is offering a six-month volunteership for an American doctoral student to join the History and Classics Department in 2014. This position has been generously funded by the American Trust for the British Library.


The student’s primary focus in 2014 will be contributing to the development of the Library’s major temporary exhibition on Magna Carta which will open in 2015 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the granting of the document in 1215. The exhibition will examine the medieval history of Magna Carta and its post-medieval impact and legacy, both in Britain and around the world.

We are particularly keen to receive applications from students able to contribute to the development of gallery interactives for the medieval sections of the exhibition. For that reason, it is essential that candidates have strong knowledge of medieval British history and excellent medieval Latin. Expertise in reading medieval documentary script is desirable.

The student will work closely with the Lead Curators of the exhibition, Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator for Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, and Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts. The intern will be involved in a wide variety of duties relating to the planning and preparation of the exhibition, and the wider programme associated with it. The project will provide the intern with invaluable research and practical experience of preparing for a major international manuscript exhibition. 

During the internship, the student will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. The position is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills using original historical manuscript sources, and expertise in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.


The programme is only open to US citizens who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of Magna Carta. Applicants must have a strong knowledge of medieval British history and excellent medieval Latin.


The term of the placement is for a period of six months. The placement is voluntary and therefore unpaid.  However, the successful applicant will be reimbursed in respect of actual expenses in the performance of his or her duties, such as visa costs, direct travel expenses to London and commuting expenses to the British Library, accommodation, and immediate living expenses such as food (but not clothing or alcohol), subject to a maximum of £10,000. The volunteer will be responsible for making his or her own travel and accommodation arrangements.

If the applicant does not hold the right to work in the United Kingdom, the Library will sponsor the volunteer for a visa using the UK Border Agency’s points-based system under Tier 5 Charity Workers. The successful candidate will be required to submit the relevant application form to the local processing centre. The processing fee will be reimbursed by the Library.  No placement may commence until the appropriate right to work documents have been obtained and verified.

How to apply

Please send an application letter detailing the months you would be able to be in London, a résumé, and two reference letters to Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to, or by post to 96 Euston Road, LondonNW1 2DB, by Saturday 1 February 2014.  A telephone interview may be held. All applicants will be notified of the results by the end of March 2014.

01 December 2013

A Calendar Page for December 2013

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

The necessary work of preparing for winter continues on this full-page miniature for December.  In the foreground, a man and a woman are slaughtering one of the pigs that was fattened in November, and catching its blood in a pan.  Behind them, people are busy baking bread in a large oven, watched over by attentive birds.  In the background, we can see a stag, hunted by horses and hounds, leaping over a gate.  In the bas-de-page below, several men are playing at what appears to be a most entertaining (if dangerous) game: tug-of-war on sledges.  On the following page can be found a roundel containing a goat for the zodiac sign Capricorn, alongside the saints' days for December.  Interestingly, the feast day of Thomas Becket has remained unaltered, probably because this manuscript was not in England during the Reformation (for more on this question, see our post Erasing Becket).  At the bottom of the folio, two men are sledging on a frozen pond, while others, including a man carrying a white hare, are gathered around a warming fire.

Calendar page for December with a miniature of people slaughtering a pig and baking bread, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 29v

Calendar page for December with a bas-de-page scene of men sledging and warming themselves by a fire, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 30r

from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 26v - See more at: