Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from January 2014

30 January 2014

A Medieval Comic Strip

Egerton MS 1894, better known as the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, has been described as one of the most fascinating – and puzzling – of all the manuscripts in the British Library collections.  The Egerton Genesis Picture Book (one of our most recent uploads to our Digitised Manuscripts site) was produced in England in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century.  It contains a cycle of 149 illustrations of the Book of Genesis, running from the Creation through the story of Joseph.  The images are described in short captions in Anglo-Norman French, based upon text from Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica.  

The artist responsible for the paintings in this volume has been named the Master of the Egerton Genesis, in honour of his work in this manuscript.  His hand appears in a number of other contemporary manuscripts, and he was clearly highly skilled, but also displays a unique and sometimes rather irreverent perspective on familiar subjects.  For example, in the final image of the Creation the Master depicts the Lord God fast asleep among the flowers he has just made, his bare feet exposed.  If it weren’t for the halo and the elegant pose, he could be a shepherd who has dozed off after his lunch.

Detail of God the Father resting, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England (Norwich or Durham?), 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 1894, f. 1v

In many ways, the Egerton Genesis Picture Book can be seen as an early comic book, with four pictures on most pages, each illustrating an episode in a well-known tale.

Here, for example, is how the Tower of Babel story is treated:

Nimrod and the Tower of Babel

Nimrod, grandson of Ham and great grandson of Noah, the proud hunter and tyrant who defied God, is mentioned in the book of Genesis, and in Hebrew and Christian tradition he is usually seen as the leader responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel.  On ff. 4v-6r his story is told in pictures.

First Nimrod is shown holding a spiked club and towering over his ancestors, looking back at them in a rather haughty manner:

Detail of a miniature of the ancestry of Nimrod, Egerton MS 1894, f. 4v

The story continues on the facing page, with four scenes from the life of Nimrod.  He is shown using a rod to force his people to worship fire, and as a young man, being instructed by Jonitus, the fourth son of Noah, in astronomy.  These episodes are taken from the Historia Scholastica rather than the Bible. The descendants of Ham and Japheth are shown in the other two images on this page.

Detail of a miniature of Nimrod and the descendants of Ham and Japheth, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5r

In the full-page image of the building of the Tower of Babel on the following page, an older Nimrod, still standing head and shoulders above everyone else, consults with his  kinsmen, who may be telling him not to anger the Almighty.  The image is full of activity as workmen construct a rather Italian-style tower.  In the upper left part, a mason holds up his trowel, while another lays blocks above him.

Detail of a miniature of the building of the Tower of Babel, Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v

The final image, showing the destruction of the Tower of Babel, occupies the whole left hand side of the page. God is directing the four winds, which huff and puff and blow the tower down (eat your heart out, big bad wolf – this one is made of bricks!)

Detail of a miniature of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Egerton MS 1894, f. 6r

Of course, violence is a key ingredient of most comic strips, and the Egerton Genesis Picture Book is no exception.  How is this for a healthy display of weapons and carnage?


- Chantry Westwell

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

28 January 2014

The Height of Fashion

Along with the less-than-romantic scenes of butchery and betrayal, murder and mayhem (see our previous post Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose), there are of course many miniatures in Harley MS 4425 which depict an idealised courtly world and its inhabitants.  As well as serving as a narrative accompaniment to the text, these illustrations reflect the fashions and culture of the late fifteenth-century Burgundian court, and the tastes of the nobleman who commissioned its production, Engelbert II, Count of Nassau and Vianden (d. 1506).

The book is decorated throughout with a series of narrative column miniatures as well as four large miniatures enclosed by naturalistic borders.  The characters are portrayed in pastoral landscapes and blossoming pleasure gardens, and the borders are filled with leaves, flowers, birds and butterflies – all intended to evoke ideas of fertility, new life and, erm, ‘romantic feelings’…

Detail of a miniature of the Garden of Pleasure, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

As the narrator (The Lover) relates his tale, the reader is treated to scenes of courtly life, as seen in this miniature above of a walled garden: fountains, fruit trees and peacocks; a man playing the lyre and musicians playing the pipe and tabor, kortholt and harp; women singing (one can actually see the neumes – medieval musical notes – on the scrolls they are holding); women doing embroidery; hand-holding and friendly embracing, conversation and dancing.

The variety and detail of the characters’ clothing makes this manuscript a valuable source for understanding more about the fashions of a very particular period and location.  Yet close inspection and comparison with other contemporary portraits and depictions of dress reveals, however, interesting juxtapositions in the style and date of the fashions worn by the protagonist and other characters of the Roman de la Rose.

Detail of a miniature of the Lover asleep; dressed; and approaching the Garden of Love, Harley MS 4425, f. 7r

At the beginning of the tale, the narrator (L’Amans or The Lover) describes how all the events he is about to relate were experienced by him during a vivid dream.  In the large opening miniature above, we see him tucked up in bed, dreaming about arising and getting dressed.  The objects in his hands might be a case containing a dressing needle; the narrator tells of how he rose in his dream and stitched his sleeves together in a criss-cross pattern.  Over his shirt he is wearing a dark red velvet doublet with open lacing with matching hose.  Outside and fully clothed, he has on a grey gown lined in red over a black damask jacket.  The miniature shows him setting out, full of the joys of spring, and coming across a little stream where, the text states, he decides to take a wash.

Detail of a miniature of the Lover entering the Garden of Pleasure, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

Elsewhere, though, we see the narrator dressed differently.  After the portraits of the Vices, the Lover appears dressed in a blue robe with ‘dagging’ (slashed edges on the skirt) and a gold belt with tassels.  His shoes also have ‘pikes’ (long points), which must have presented some obstacles to showing off one’s deft footwork when dancing!  To contemporary eyes, such an outfit would have contrasted with the much more modern and fashionable garments worn by the other gentlemen and ladies in the scene, perhaps evoking the status of the narrator as a foreigner to this dream-world and as someone from the distant past (Guillaume de Lorris having written the first part of the Roman back in the 1220s).

Detail of a miniature of a man leading the Carolle (round dance with music) in the garden of Sir Mirth, Harley MS 4425, f. 14v

In a miniature of a dancing troupe, the gentleman leading the dance wears a curious mixture of styles.  The old-fashioned dagging reflects the artist’s interpretation of the description of his clothing as ‘cut up in many places’, as do the slashes in the fabric of his shoes.  However, his long hair and cap are more typical of the 1490s.

On the subject of headgear, there are some quite magnificent hats and headdresses on display throughout the manuscript:

Detail of a miniature of the Lover wearing a ‘sugarloaf’ hat, Bel Acceuil (‘Fair Welcome’) wearing a chaplet, and Dangier wearing a turban, Harley MS 4425, f. 32r

Detail of a miniature of Jalousie (‘Jealousy’) wearing a black mantle, speaking to Bel Accueil, Harley MS 4425, f. 37v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover speaking to Amis (‘the Friend’), Harley MS 4425, f. 67v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover meeting Richesse (‘Wealth’), Harley MS 4425, f. 90v

Detail of a miniature of Convoitise (‘Covetousness’) and Largesse (‘Generosity’) entering the castle, Harley MS 4425, f. 111r

We also get to see the raiment of other stations in society, past and present, including:

Detail of a miniature of Virginius pleading before a judge (Appius), holding his staff of office, Harley MS 4425, f. 54r

Detail of a miniature of a king (Croesus), enthroned and holding his sceptre, speaking to his daughter, Phanie, Harley MS 4425, f. 62r

Detail of a miniature of a king and his court, Harley MS 4425, f. 87r

Detail of a miniature of a bishop with mitre and crozier, preaching to the armies of Venus, Harley MS 4425, f. 167v

Detail of a miniature of soldiers in armour and sailors (Jason and the Argonauts), Harley MS 4425, f. 86r

Detail of a miniature of Amour (‘Love’), holding a glaive, and his army, Harley MS 4425, f. 95r

Detail of a miniature of soldiers preparing a siege with cannons, Harley MS 4425, f. 139r

Detail of a miniature of prehistoric people living in the woods, wearing nothing much, Harley MS 4425, f. 76v

And, at the very bottom of the pile, the less fortunate in society: paupers and beggars in their rags and cast-offs.

Detail of a miniature of the figure of Pouvrete (‘Poverty’), Harley MS 4425, f. 11v

Detail of a miniature of a poor man being given money by his true friend (who is wearing another great hat, called a ‘chaperon’), Harley MS 4425, f. 47v

Detail of a miniature of Pauvrete (‘Poverty’) begging from Richesse (‘Wealth’), Harley MS 4425, f. 73r

Do let us know what your favourite images from this manuscript are, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @BLMedieval!

- James Freeman

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

25 January 2014

'She cares not a turd': Notes on a 16th century Squabble

While we were preparing the catalogue entry for Harley MS 7334, one of our most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts, we came across a very curious marginal note, and would like to solicit your ideas about it.

Decorated initial ‘W’(han) at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales, England (London or East Anglia, c. 1410), Harley MS 7734, f. 1r

But first a bit of background.  This manuscript is a relatively early copy of Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, and was created c. 1410 in England, probably in East Anglia.  The scribe who penned it was responsible for other manuscripts containing the Canterbury Tales (such as Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 198, for example), leading some scholars to propose that it was a production of a commercial scriptorium specialising in such texts.  Harley MS 7334 has a rather complicated ownership history, and passed through a number of different hands during the tumultuous 15th and 16th centuries.  The task of untangling its provenance is both aided - and complicated - by the profusion of notes, signatures, and inscriptions that can be found throughout the manuscript, many of which were added by later hands.

Detail of an inscription concerning Elizabeth Kympton [Kimpton] and Edward Waterhouse, Harley MS 7734, f. 81r

It is one of these inscriptions that caught our eye, for reasons that will shortly become clear.  In the right-hand margin of f. 81r (above) is a note in a mid-16th century hand.  It reads ‘Mrs Kympto[n] shall have an ill name by Mr Waterh[ows] but she cares not a turd and yet she is a gentlewo[man] clerly enoug[h] how say you she Kna[ves?]’ with the later part of the inscription much rubbed away.

Well. This is very strange indeed.  And it is not the only such note in the manuscript.

Detail of an inscription concerning Elizabeth Kympton [Kimpton] and Edward Waterhouse, Harley MS 7734, f. 187r

On f. 187r can be found a similar sentiment.  This note reads: ‘Mrs Kimpton is like to have an ill name by mr waterhous but she cares not a…’.  Again, the rest of this communication has been effaced, although one imagines that it expresses a similar idea to the previous.  So what are we to make of this?    

These odd addenda have received little attention in the literature about this manuscript.  One scholar describes the first inscription only fleetingly as a 'bit of gossip' and, perhaps overly-concerned with the delicate sensibilities of his readers, he declines to transcribe it.  Our own research has yet to turn up much of substance about the mysterious woman who 'cares not a turd', save a few brief details. An Elizabeth Kympton is listed in the will of Lady Anne Grey (d. 1557/8), who owned this manuscript in the mid-16th century.  Lady Anne also named an Edward Waterhouse as one of her legatees; the two were probably part of Lady Anne's household, although the precise nature of their relationship to her and to each other remain unknown.  Several more clues can be found in the manuscript itself.

Detail of an inscription reading ‘Elizabeth Kympton’, Harley MS 7734, f. 129r

The name 'Elizabeth Kympton' is written in the margin of f. 129r, and we find it again on f. 61r. Intriguingly, this time her name is coupled with that of Edward Waterhouse, and conveniently dated to 1557.  

Detail of an inscription reading ‘1557 / Elizabeth Kympton / Edward Waterhows’, Harley MS 7734, f. 61r

We know a bit more about Edward Waterhouse (later Sir Edward); he was born in 1533, and was the youngest son of the auditor to Henry VIII.  As a young adult he came under the patronage of Sir Henry Sidney, and became Sir Henry's personal secretary when the latter was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1565 (Sir Henry's name is also inscribed in this manuscript, apparently by Edward, see f. 170r).  But prior to embarking on his career Edward must have spent some time in the household of Lady Anne Grey.  He was clearly a prodigious annotator; he was responsible for a number of notes throughout the manuscript, including a line on the final folio: '1556.  Anne Grey Wife to the Lord John Grey and dowghtor to Wyllim Barlee Esquier owith this book. E. W.'

Detail of an inscription by Edward Waterhouse about Lady Anne Grey, Harley MS 7734, f. 286v

The handwriting here is comparable to that in the much-effaced note on f. 187r.  Could Edward have been the author of the two 'ill name' inscriptions?  And what could have been the motivation for such an odd fit of pique?  Did this arise from a lovers' quarrel, or from some other cause?  

One final point, which may or may not be relevant:  the bizarre inscription on f. 81r can be found in the midst of the Man of Law’s Tale, the fifth of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  This is a story about a Christian princess named Custance who was bethrothed to the Sultan of Syria.  According to the tale, the Sultan’s mother intervened to prevent the marriage, and set Custance (or Constance) adrift at sea.  She eventually came ashore on the Northumbrian coast, where she met the king, Alla, and they fell in love.  In a horrible stroke of luck, the now-pregnant Custance again found herself the victim of a meddling mother-in-law, who intercepted and altered a letter from her.  Custance was banished yet again to sea by an angry Alla, ending up in Italy, but the story had a happy ending when the repentant Alla went in search of her and they were eventually reunited.  The Edward/Elizabeth note on f. 81r can be found next to a description of Alla’s despairing and angry response to his mother’s forged letter from Custance.  He then wrote his own letter to give to the drunken messenger who delivered his mother’s epistle; the Man of Law's Tale then continues (we're providing the modern English translation):

'This letter he seals, secretly weeping / Which to the messenger was given soon / And forth he goes; there is nothing more to do. / O messenger, filled with drunkenness / Strong is thy breath, thy limbs ever tremble / And thou betray all secrets. / Thy mind is lost, thou chatter like a jay / Thy face is completely changed.  / Where drunkenness reigns in any group / There is no secret hidden, without doubt. / O Donegild [Alla's mother], I do not have any English suitable to describe / Unto thy malice and thy tyranny! / And therefore to the fiend I thee consign; / Let him write about thy treachery! / Fie, like a man, fie! O nay, by God, I lie / Fie, like a fiendish spirit, for I dare well tell / Though thou here walk, thy spirit is in hell!'

On that note, we'll turn this over to you; please do let us know your thoughts on this still mostly-hidden secret.  You can leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval.   

-          Sarah J Biggs

23 January 2014

Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose

Where can one go to witness the pursuit of the opposite sex, music and dancing, violence and beatings, and gratuitous nudity?  No, not a British town centre on a Friday night, but in the Roman de la Rose, obviously!

An exquisite copy of this important medieval verse romance – Harley MS 4425 – has now been digitised and is available for you to browse in its entirety on the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  The Roman de la Rose was written in Old French by Guillaume de Lorris from the late 1220s up until his death in 1278, and completed some forty years later by Jean de Meun.  This manuscript was made for Count Engelbert of Nassau (1451-1504), a wealthy courtier and leader of the Duke of Burgundy’s Privy Council.  The artist to whom the decoration is attributed is known as the Master of the Prayer Books, and he and his studio were active around 1500.  He portrayed the author in one of the column miniatures: he is shown sat at a writing desk with his book before him, in the act of composition (see below for an image which will be familiar to those of you who follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval).  Note how the artist has set out the text in the author’s book in two columns, with spaces left for illustrations, exactly resembling this manuscript in a conceit that emphasises the figure’s status as author. 

Detail of a miniature of Jean de Meun writing his book, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

The Roman de la Rose is an allegorical poem about courtship, love and a gentleman’s pursuit of ideal love (represented by the rose), experienced in a dream by the narrator.  However, just in case you thought it was all ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’, the miniatures that accompany the text reveal some darker elements to the story.

Running alongside all the displays of sophisticated, wealthy, aristocratic life, are rather more violent images, relating to stories and events in the text.  For example, there is quite a lot of fighting in the Roman de la Rose – a virtual panoply of brawls and murders (and it isn’t just the men slugging it out!):

Detail of a miniature of Franchise fighting Danger, Harley MS 4425, f. 134v

Detail of a miniature of a jealous husband beating his wife, while neighbours look on, Harley MS 4425, f. 85r

Detail of a miniature of Beaute (‘Beauty’) and Laideur (‘Ugliness’) beating Chastete (‘Chastity’), now sadly damaged, Harley MS 4425, f. 81v

Detail of a miniature of the Lover being beaten by Honte (‘Shame’), Peur (‘Fear’) and Dangier (‘Danger’), Harley MS 4425, f. 131v

Below we can see two characters, Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise: one as a Beguine nun (medieval cross-dressing!) and the other as a Franciscan friar.

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) travelling in disguise, Harley MS 4425, f. 108r

Detail of a miniature of Abstinence Contrainte (‘Forced Abstinence’) and Faux Semblant (‘False Seeming’) killing Malebouche (Evil Tongue), and cutting out his tongue, Harley MS 4425, f. 111r

These two are on a mission to kill off Malebouche (‘Evil Tongue’, literally ‘Bad Mouth’) and, appropriately, cutting out his tongue before slitting his throat (above).

Detail of a miniature of Virginius beheading his daughter Virginia, Harley MS 4425, f. 54v

In another scene (above), we see a story relating to Appius Claudius Crassus, a member of the decemviri (a council of ten men established to institute new laws) of the Roman Republic around 451 BC.  In a tale originally related by Livy, Appius lusted after Virginia.  However, since the girl was thoroughly repulsed by his lechery, Appius had one of his men claim that she was his slave, in the very court over which Appius himself presided.  Predictably, Appius upheld the claims (which would allow him to then buy the girl and have his wicked way with her) – but her father, to defend her liberty and protect her from this sorry fate, decided it would be better to kill her, and so chopped off her head without further ado…which all seems a bit rough for poor, young Virginia!

Detail of a miniature of Nero watching while his mother Agrippina is dissected, Harley MS 4425, f. 59r

Elsewhere, we see the grisly fate of Agrippina the Younger.  Having failed to murder his mother by means of a ship deliberately designed to sink, Nero pursued his matricidal ambitions by ordering Anicetus (Nero’s boyhood tutor and commander of the fleet at Misenum) and his men to murder her in person.  According to Tacitus, before she was stabbed to death, and realising her son was responsible, Agrippina cried, ‘Smite my womb!’.  The image here shows Anicetus or one of the others rummaging around in Agrippina’s viscera, while Nero looks on.  Tacitus noted that some accounts related that Nero wished to see the place where he had been conceived, and also looked upon his mother after her death and praised her beauty.  Those Roman emperors didn’t really go in for filial devotion.

Detail of a miniature of Seneca committing suicide as Nero watches, Harley MS 4425, f. 59v

The verso of this folio depicts Seneca’s suicide (above).  Having charged Seneca with involvement in the Pisonian plot to assassinate him, Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself, which he did by opening his veins whilst in a bath.  The inclusion of Nero in the image may be derived from the account of his presence at Seneca’s death in the Golden Legend.

Other suicides – people literally falling on their swords – are shown as well:

Detail of a miniature of Nero committing suicide, Harley MS 4425, f. 61r

Detail of a miniature of Lucretia committing suicide in front of her family (and an attentive dog), Harley MS 4425, f. 79r

Detail of a miniature of Dido committing suicide as Aeneas sails away, Harley MS 4425, f. 117v

There’s also some nudity thrown in for good measure:

Detail of a miniature the painter Zeuxis painting nude models, Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

Detail of a miniature of Pygmalion and the statue, Harley MS 4425, f. 177v

Perhaps after the reading the Roman de la Rose – what with all the courting and wooing, birds and bees, flowers and fruit trees, and the like – you find yourself with a few questions about the procreative act.  Well, the Medieval Manuscripts Blog brings you Sex Education, Medieval-Style. 

Q. How are babies made? 

A. By Nature, with a hammer, on an anvil. 

Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r [see our post Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants for more on this miniature]

And there’s another depiction of people being created elsewhere in the manuscript…can you find it?

This manuscript also contains a number of extraordinary images of medieval dress and clothing styles, as well as a variety of depictions of the social classes.  Check out the blog next Tuesday for a post on these subjects, and still more from the magnificent Roman de la Rose.

- James Freeman

21 January 2014

Vote For Us (Please)

We are delighted to announce (drumroll, please) that the magnificent Medieval Manuscripts Blog -- that's us -- has been nominated for the National UK Blog Awards, in the Arts and Culture category.

Unicorn Grill detail

But now we need your help. In order to be shortlisted for these awards, members of the public -- that's you -- need to vote for us by midnight on 26 January. And here's how: please go the Blog Awards page, read our nomination and cast your vote in our favour, if you feel so inclined. It couldn't be simpler -- well, it probably could, but we didn't make up the rules ...

Knight v Snail

So, if medieval manuscripts float your boat -- and we're assuming that they do, otherwise you're unlikely to be reading this -- please, please, please, please vote for us! Your friendly, reputable, warm and cuddly Medieval Manuscripts blog.

If you're new to this blog, or you just want a refresher, here's a link to our most popular posts of all time, our Medieval Top Ten. There you can see blogposts about some of the highlights of the British Library's collections, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Beowulf, and those perennial favourites Knight v Snail and Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library.

Here are some of the kind things that people have been saying about us:

"Astounding! How do they get away with it?" (Daily Groat)

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 "Magical. Enchanting. Engrossing. None of these words come to mind when describing the Medieval Manuscripts Blog." (Professor Brian Trump, British Medieval Cookbook Project)

 And this, for good measure, is our nomination:

"Our blog promotes our love of medieval art, history and culture. We are the British Library’s top-ranked blog, with more than 600,000 hits this year alone [2013]. We have loyal readers throughout the world, from Antarctica to Greenland, and Afghanistan to Myanmar. Our blog has been featured in the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Scientific American, among others. We are thrilled to bring the world of medieval manuscripts to new audiences."

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs


18 January 2014

A Map at the End of the World

Now fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and currently on loan to the National Library of Australia for the Mapping Our World exhibition, Royal MS 14 C IX is one of the British Library’s copies of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, and one of numerous manuscripts in our collection containing medieval maps of the world.

Higden coined the name Historia Polychronicon – meaning ‘a history of many ages’ – to encapsulate the universal scope of his chronicle, which encompassed not only the history of the entire world from Creation to his own era of the fourteenth century, but also its geography as well.

Map of the world from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2

This marrying of history and geography can be seen with particular clarity in the large mappa mundi at the beginning of Royal MS 14 C IX, unique among the nearly 150 surviving copies of the Polychronicon in containing two maps (see above).  Unlike their modern counterparts, medieval maps were not concerned solely with landmasses, mountains, rivers, borders and cities, nor with ‘to-scale’ representation.  They were conceptual objects, upon which time as well as space were plotted, with historical events shown alongside visual or prose descriptions of the topography and people of the world. 

Detail of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Following a pattern laid down by earlier maps, this one divides the world into the three known continents: Asia in the upper half (f. 1v), Africa stretched along the right and Europe in the lower left-hand corner (f. 2r), with England coloured in red. 

Detail of England, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

All is surrounded by green ocean, and buffeted by the winds, which are represented by twelve heads, each huffing and puffing.  Major rivers are shown: the Euphrates and the Tigris enclosing Mesopotamia (which means ‘between two rivers’; see above), the Nile snaking its way across Africa, the Rhine coming down from the Alps, and even the Thames meandering past Oxford and London.  Many of the descriptive labels are excerpted from the text of the Polychronicon, indicating that its creator was familiar with Higden’s book, and perhaps used this very copy to annotate the map.

Detail of the Garden of Eden, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 2v

The map also charts the flow of Christian history.  The blank panel at the top is intended to feature a drawing of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (as seen on the other map in this Polychronicon on f. 2v; see above).  Babylon and the Tower of Babel are beneath it, followed by a rather charming sketch of Noah in his ark with a ram, a lion and a stag. 

Detail of Noah in the ark with a ram, lion, and a stag, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Jerusalem is given particular prominence, but most remarkable is possibly the tiniest representation of the Crucifixion in a manuscript in the British Library. 

Royal_ms_14_c_ix_f001v_crucifixion_detail copy
Detail of the city of Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Beneath the label ‘Mons Caluarie’ (Mount Calvary), we see Christ on the cross, the nails in his hands and feet and the wound in his side all clearly visible, accompanied by two figures, presumably the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. 

Important sites in subsequent Christian history are marked in the lower half of the map: Rome and St. Peter’s as the centre of the Catholic Church, and Santiago de Compostela as the last stage in the Christianization of Europe.

Detail of the pilgrimage trail ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

In Genesis, there are six days of Creation, followed by a seventh day of rest.  St Augustine interpreted this as a prefiguration of the course of human existence, dividing history into six ‘ages of the world’ and proposing that the Last Judgement would occur at the end of the sixth age.  Although Higden divided the historical books of the Polychronicon along different lines, nevertheless he retained the sixfold structure that had been a common feature of universal history since Orosius’s Historia aduersos paganos.  Higden wove together universal and insular historical divisions of time, concentrating the first five ages in the first two historical books of the Polychronicon, and dividing the remaining four according to successive invasions – Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman – which had long been depicted in history books as divine punishment for people’s sinfulness.  God was immanent in the medieval world and his intervention in human history in the sixth age an imminent possibility.  The reader of this copy of the Polychronicon found themselves at the end of the world in more ways than one.

- James Freeman

16 January 2014

The Three Living and the Three Dead

Inspired by the massive success of our recent Knight v Snail post, we thought it might be interesting to have a look at some other tropes of medieval art which feature in many of our manuscripts.  One such is that of the Three Living and the Three Dead. 

A page from the De Lisle Psalter, showing an illustration of The Three Living and Three Dead above an Anglo-Norman poem.
Miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, with the Anglo-Norman poem 'Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs' below, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

The precise origins of the Three Living and the Three Dead are still somewhat mysterious, but there are many versions of the tale dating back to the 13th century, with the best-known coming from England and France.  The basic version of the story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, which are in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated.  Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late.

An illustration of The Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter.
Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

The dialogue between the two groups is sometimes explicit, as in the relatively early example above from the early 14th century De Lisle Psalter (Arundel MS 83).  Beneath a miniature of three kings encountering three corpses is an abridged version of the Anglo-Norman poem Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs which describes the ensuing conversation.  Interestingly, above this double-register miniature is a series of inscriptions in the English vernacular, giving additional voice to the characters.  The Three Living cry out: ‘I am afraid’ (Ich am afert), ‘Lo, what I see!’ (Lo whet ich se), and ‘Methinks these be devils three’ (Me þinkes hit bey develes þre).  And the Three Dead reply: ‘I was well fair’ (Ich wes wel fair), ‘Such shall you be’ (Such schel tou be), and ‘For God’s love, beware by me’ (For godes love bewer by me). 

A marginal illustration of the Three Living, from the Taymouth Hours.

A marginal illustration of the Three Dead, from the Taymouth Hours.
Detail of bas-de-page miniatures of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 179v-180r

Similar rubrics can be found in the illustrations of this scene in the mid-14th century Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson MS 13; see our previous post about this magnificent manuscript). The Three Living can be found in the bas-de-page of f. 179v, confronting the Three Dead on the following folio (f. 180r).  One of the Living cries out that he is aghast at the spectacle (Ich am agast), while the others recoil in horror.  The Dead respond in almost identical fashion to those in the De Lisle Psalter, exhorting the Living to take their message to heart and change their ways. 

These bas-de-page scenes can be found in the Taymouth Hours towards the end of the Office of the Dead, a set of prayers for the dead and dying that were included in virtually every medieval Book of Hours.  In some later medieval Hours, the visual motif of the Three Living and the Three Dead was ‘promoted’ to the leading role, prefacing the text of the Office proper.  One interesting example comes from Add MS 35313, a manuscript variously called the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’, which was produced, probably in Ghent, about the year 1500.  It was almost certainly created for a female patron, possibly Joanna I of Castile, who was often called Joanna the Mad (for more information about Joanna and her manuscripts, see also The Mystery of the Hours of Joanna the Mad, A Medieval Menagerie, and our calendar series for 2012).

An illustration of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile.
Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 158v

The Office of the Dead in Add MS 35313 opens with a scene of the Three Living encountering the Three Dead while out hawking, and is unusual in including a woman among the hunting party.  This miniature may be a copy of a similar scene in a Book of Hours that belonged to Mary of Burgundy, who was the mother-in-law of Joanna I of Castile; these hours are now in Berlin (Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett MS 78 B 12, f. 220v).  There are no rubrics or explanatory text associated with this miniature, which implies that these sorts of images were widespread enough to be instantly recognisable to a reader.  The Three Dead, however, appear much more threatening here than in earlier versions, going so far as to chase after the escaping riders with arrows in hand.

A page from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, showing an illustration of the Raising of Lazarus and a scene of the Three Living and the Three Dead.
Miniature of the Raising of Lazarus and a scene of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, Italy (Padua? And Perugia), c. 1508 – c. 1538, Add MS 20927, f. 119v

Another group of ominous Dead appear in the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, produced in Italy c. 1508 – c. 1538.  Beneath a miniature of the Raising of Lazarus is a small panel of the Three Dead, who appear to be attacking the Three Living; note the terrified horses and hunting dogs circling the scene (see detail below).  Rather than exhorting the living to change their ways, the dead are here presented as a danger in themselves.  

An illustration of the Three Living and Three Dead, from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours
Detail of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Stuart de Rothesay Hours, Italy (Padua? And Perugia), c. 1508 – c. 1538, Add MS 20927, f. 119v

Several more images from our collections are below.  As always, please let us know what you think; you can leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter at @BLMedieval.

A marginal illustration of the Three Living, from the Smithfield Decretals.

A marginal illustration of the Three Dead, from the Smithfield Decretals.
Bas-de-page scenes of the Three Living and the Three Dead on facing folios, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), c. 1300, with illuminations added in England (London), c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 258v-259r [for more on this manuscript, see Finishing the Smithfield Decretals]

An illustration of the Three Living and Three Dead, from a late 15th-century Book of Hours.
Detail of a miniature of the Three Living (a pope, an emperor, and a king) and the Three Dead (wearing matching crowns), at the beginning of thee Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1480 – c. 1490, Harley MS 2917, f. 119r

An illustration of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from a 16th-century German Psalter.
Miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead on a tipped-in leaf, from a Psalter, Germany (Augsburg?), first half of the 16th century, Harley MS 2953, f. 19v

Sarah J Biggs

14 January 2014

Yet Another Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

A new year, a newly-updated list of digitised manuscript hyperlinks!  This master list contains everything that has been digitised up to this point by the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department, complete with hyperlinks to each record on our Digitised Manuscripts site.   We'll have another list for you in three months; you can download the current version here: Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 14.01.13.  Have fun!

Diagram of a cherubim, based on Alanus ab Insula (Alain of Lille)'s De sex alia cherubim, from the De Lisle Psalter, England, c. 1308 - c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 5v

- Sarah J Biggs