THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from March 2014

12 March 2014

The Vikings and the British Library

When you think of Vikings, what's the first thing that comes into your mind? Horned helmets? Longships with dragon-headed prows? Kirk Douglas? Then think again, because our friends at the British Museum have opened a new exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend, which aims to debunk some of the myths which have grown up around these medieval Scandinavian seafarers.

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King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae (London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r).

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to this show, which is open in London until 22 June 2014. On display at the British Museum is an 11th-century manuscript from our collections, depicting King Cnut and his wife Emma standing before the altar of the New Minster, Winchester. Cnut (also known as Canute or Knútr) was ruler of a vast Scandinavian sea-kingdom, encompassing England (from the year 1016), Denmark (from 1018), Norway (from 1028) and parts of Sweden. Emma (also known as Ælfgifu) had previously been the wife of King Æthelred the Unready of England (r. 978-1016). The manuscript in which they are depicted contains the names of the brethren and benefactors of the New Minster, and was probably begun in the 1030s. The whole book, Stowe MS 944, can be seen online on our Digitised Manuscripts site; but we also hope that as many of you as possible will take the opportunity to see it on show this spring and early summer at the British Museum. And you can read more about the image itself here.

Julian Harrison

10 March 2014

Magical Mystery Play

As you may have heard, the British Library has recently acquired a unique and richly decorated copy of a medieval mystery play. We're delighted to tell you that the whole is now available, in two volumes, on our Digitised Manuscripts site, as Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2. To whet your appetite, here are some more images from the manuscript, and the fascinating story of how it was made.

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Vespasian’s miraculous recovery from leprosy upon being shown Christ’s face on the Holy Veil by Saint Veronica, from the Mystère de la Vengeance by Eustache Marcadé, Bruges, c. 1465 (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/1, f. 111r).

The manuscript was illustrated by Loyset Liédet (b. c. 1420, d. 1479) from Hesdin, in northern France, who may have been a student of Simon Marmion there. In 1469 Liédet joined the book producer’s confraternity in Bruges. He was a favourite artist of the Dukes of Burgundy, and is known to have decorated at least 15 and possibly as many as 20 extant manuscripts, and probably many others besides that are either lost or as yet unidentified. He was a master of colour and narrative, particularly of secular scenes. Liédet’s painting in this book is important for its groundbreaking, inventive and imaginative interpretation of a play, rather than devotional text. Because he was illustrating a new contemporary text, Liédet had to create new scenes corresponding to the text. His creative and novel compositions narrate the text in original ways.

Liédet's work is a valuable record of contemporary fashion and textiles, of secular life and of the emerging interest in scenes of internal space combined with external city and landscapes, as evidenced in the cure of Vespasian, above (Additional MS 89066/1, f. 111r), and the arrest of Pilate (Additional MS 89066/1, f. 128v) pictured below.

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Detail of a miniature showing the violent arrest of Pontius Pilate by armed guards (Add MS 89066/1, f. 128v).

The complexity, innovation and use of colour in Liédet’s cycle of illustrations and his subtlety in the handling of the narrative have few parallels among contemporary manuscripts or panel paintings.

Liédet devised 20 large paintings to illustrate scenes in the play. These are incredibly detailed, and follow the text closely. For example, in the image of two doctors visiting Vespasian, the red spots of leprosy are visible on the patient’s body, and the artist has followed the stage direction Le [deuxième] medicin en regardant son visaige (the second doctor looks at his face) by depicting the doctor looking directly at Vespasian, and holding Vespasian’s hand, possibly to take his pulse (f. 61v, volume 1). These large and unique paintings therefore constitute an important witness of the artist’s skill at illustrating a new dramatic text.

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Detail of a miniature showing Vespasian suffering from leprosy and being examined in bed by two doctors (Add MS 89066/1, f. 61v).

Thanks to surviving ducal accounts made after Philip’s death in July 1468, we know exactly how much the manuscript cost, and the name of the scribe and artist. The text was written by the scribe Yvonnet le Jeune, who was paid 16 shillings for each of the 38 quires (£30). The artist, Loyset Liédet (the enlumineur) was paid 18 shillings for each miniature (£18). Each of the 24 large illuminated initials (grandes lettres a champaigne dor et vingnettes dedens) cost 12 pence, for a total of 24 shillings. The binding cost 31 shillings, and the metal fittings for the binding 14 shillings (The original binding and fittings are now lost). The expense to produce the whole book was 51 pounds and 19 shillings. This price can be compared to the cost of a panel painting: in 1464, Dirk Bouts received 200 Rhenish guilders (£33 6s. 8d.) from the confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in Louvain for the painting of a triptych of the Last Supper. In comparison, a senior military officer at Philip the Good’s court, the Master of the Cannon, was paid a salary of 6 pounds a year (although this may have been in addition to room and board at the court).

This manuscript fills a gap in the British Library’s collections of the work of this artist. We already held at least four manuscripts usually ascribed to a ‘follower of Liédet’ (Royal MS 15 D I, Royal MS 17 F VI, Royal MS 17 F VII and Royal MS 18 E V). The acquisition of a manuscript securely attributed to Liédet, and dated to an early period in his career, is an extremely valuable research resource and we very much hope that it will allow these other attributions to be reassessed.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who supported the acquisition of this beautiful manuscript, and we hope that you like it too! The manuscript was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax before being allocated to the British Library in 2014. Its acquisition was also made possible thanks to generous donations from the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library, International Partners in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, the Breslauer Bequest, and other anonymous donors. It can also now be seen in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library -- we hope that you like it as much as we do!

08 March 2014

The Books of Remarkable Women

In 2011, when we blogged about the Shaftesbury Psalter (which may have belonged to Adeliza of Louvain; see below), we wrote that medieval manuscripts which had belonged to women were relatively rare survivals.  This still remains true, but as we have reviewed our blog over the past few years, it has become clear that we must emphasize the relative nature of the rarity – we have posted literally dozens of times about manuscripts that were produced for, owned, or created by a number of medieval women.

A page from the Shaftesbury Psalter, showing an illustration of the book's owner kneeling before the Virgin and Child.
Full-page miniature of the manuscript’s female owner kneeling as a supplicant before the Virgin and Child, from the Shaftesbury Psalter, England, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Lansdowne MS 383, f. 165v [for more on this manuscript, read our blogpost  A Prayerbook Fit for a Queen?]

In honour of International Women’s Day, we would like to have a look back at a few of these manuscripts, and the remarkable women who owned them.  

A page from the Melisende Psalter, showing an illustration of Christ's Ascension.
Miniature of the Ascension of Christ, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 11r

The Melisende Psalter, owned by Melisende, the Queen of Jerusalem (1105-1161), this Psalter was possibly created for her by her husband, Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine

A page from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing an illustration of the Crucifixion.
Miniature of the Crucifixion, with eight niches occupied by male figures, with an historiated initial 'A'(d), with a pope, king, bishop and two others kneeling before an altar, with a bas-de-page scene of Christina cast into the sea and rescued by angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256v

The Queen Mary Psalter, a remarkable manuscript produced in England between 1310 and 1320.  It takes its name from its later owner, Queen Mary Tudor (1516-1558), daughter of Henry VIII, but possibly originally produced for Isabella of France (1295-1358), queen of England and consort of Edward II.  More about the Psalter’s history can be found in the earlier link, or in this post Rival Queens, Precious Books, which also describes the digitisation of the Prayer Book of Lady Jane Grey (1536/7-1554), Harley MS 2342.

A page from the Taymouth Hours, showing an illustration of a crowned woman and a priest, with a marginal illustration of St Jerome.
Miniature prefacing the prayers to be said at Mass, with a crowned woman (probably the first owner of the manuscript) kneeling underneath a canopy while a priest raises the host, and a bas-de-page scene of Jerome writing, from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 7r

The Taymouth Hours, a Book of Hours containing a spectacular programme of bas-de-page paintings, this manuscript was created in England in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century.  Its patron was certainly an aristocratic, and possibly royal, woman.  Scholars have variously argued that the original patron may have been Joan of the Tower, the daughter of Edward II and later wife of David II of Scotland (1321-1362), Isabella of France (1295-1358, see above), or Philippa of Hainault (1312-1369), the queen of Edward III.  Recent scholarship hypothesizes that the book was commissioned for Eleanor of Woodstock, elder daughter of Edward II (1318-1355), on the occasion of the princess’s betrothal.  A closely related manuscript, is of course, the famous Unicorn Cookbook.

A detail from Christine de Pizan's Book of the Queen, showing an illustration of the author in her study.
Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan working in her study, accompanied by her small dog, at the beginning of the ‘Cent balades’, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the extraordinary manuscript created c. 1410 – c. 1414 by Christine de Pizan (1364- c. 1430), widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors.  The Book of the Queen contains the largest extant collection of Christine’s writing, and was written and decorated under her supervision, commissioned for Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen consort to Charles VI of France.

A detail from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing an illustration of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret.
Detail of a miniature of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI of England, and surrounded by their court, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), c. 1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book, produced as a wedding gift for the young Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), the future wife of Henry VI of England (and for more details on the texts of this manuscript, read out blogpost The Art of Chivalry)

A page from the Isabella Breviary, showing a number of coats of arms relating to Ferdinand and Isabella and their families.
The arms of Ferdinand and Isabella with the arms of Infante John and Margaret of Austria (left) and the arms of Philip of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and Infanta Joanna, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 436v

The Isabella Breviary, produced for Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) and illustrated by the preeminent Flemish artists of the period, this breviary was the subject of our first calendar series back in 2011, as well as a later post on the charming prevalence of monkeys in its margins.

A page from the Hours of Joanna the Mad, showing an illustration of Joanna praying alongside the Evangelist St John.
Full-page miniature of Joanna the Mad praying, accompanied by John the Evangelist, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Add MS 18852, f. 288r

The Hours of Joanna the Mad, created for Joanna the Mad (1479-1555), the daughter of Isabella I of Castile, and carefully customised under Joanna’s direction.  These magnificent Hours have been the subject of a number of our posts, including one on the plethora of marginal animals in the manuscript, and our series on the calendar pages (see as well this post on the mystery of another Book of Hours that may have belonged to Joanna).

There are of course many other examples of medieval women as patrons and artists within our collections and elsewhere.  We hope you enjoy paging through some of these remarkable books, and that you have a very happy International Women’s Day!

Sarah J Biggs

06 March 2014

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

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We are extremely pleased to be able to tell you that the British Library has acquired an exceptional manuscript of a medieval drama, made for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1467). The manuscript in question was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax, and contains the Mystère de la Vengeance, a play in French verse by the Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440). Duke Philip’s copy is one of the finest surviving illuminated manuscripts of any medieval theatrical text, and is now in two volumes: it includes 20 large miniatures painted by Loyset Liédet (d. 1479), illustrating the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. This manuscript is of outstanding significance as a unique copy of the complete version of a theatrical text illustrated in a completely original way, and as an example of a securely dated and documented work made for one of the greatest patrons of the 15th century.

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Detail of a miniature showing Vespasian suffering from leprosy and being examined in bed by two doctors, from the Mystère de la Vengeance by Eustache Marcadé, Bruges, c. 1465 (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/1, f. 61v).

Philip the Good's manuscript is now British Library, Additional MSS 89066/1 and 89066/2. From Saturday, 8 March, the manuscript will be on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and full digital images are also available on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2).

The newly-acquired manuscript was commissioned for Philip the Good in around 1465. Philip was the most powerful ruler in Europe at that time, and one of the great collectors of the 15th century. The British Library's copy is the only known surviving complete manuscript of Marcadé’s text of the mystery play, in a version that took four days to perform. Another copy is in Arras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 697, but that is a three-day version of the play, and contains around 1,000 fewer verses than Philip’s copy. Nor is the Arras copy illustrated with paintings, but rather with pen and ink drawings, and it is written on paper rather than on parchment. The play was performed in Abbeville, around 30 miles south-west of Hesdin, in 1463, and in Mechelen in 1494. It has been speculated that the Duke of Burgundy was present for the Abbeville performance, and that this deluxe manuscript was made in response to that event.

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Detail of a miniature showing the appearance in the sky of portents of Jerusalem’s destruction, from the Mystère de la Vengeance (London, British Library, MS Additional 89066/2, f. 38r).

The Mystère de la Vengeance contains 14,972 lines of French verse, which is set over four days of performances. Its subject is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. The first day’s drama is a debate between the personifications of the Four Virtues, Justice, Mercy, Peace and Truth over whether God should take revenge on Jerusalem for the Crucifixion. The result is a promise from God that any destruction would be preceded by many warnings. On the second day the Emperor Tiberius hears a letter read from Pontius Pilate concerning Christ’s miracles. Concurrently, Vespasian, suffering from leprosy in Spain, is cured by the Vera Icon, or Saint Veronica’s veil. Events in Rome on the third day of the performance include Nero sending Vespasian and his son Titus to Jerusalem to put down a revolt. The ‘year of the four emperors’, 69, is the subject of the last day’s performance, in which Vespasian orders the destruction of Jerusalem. 

The manuscript was accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax, and allocated to the British Library in 2014. Its acquisition was also made possible thanks to generous donations from the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library, International Partners in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, the Breslauer Bequest, and other anonymous donors.

For more information about the artist and scribe of this manuscript, see our blogpost Magical Mystery Tour.

04 March 2014

Guess the Manuscript XII

It's been a while since we've offered up another installment in our award-winning Guess the Manuscript series.  So long, in fact, that the origin of the image below is now a mystery even to us.  Embarrassing though it is to admit, we have forgotten where we found this.  How exciting!

Can you do any better?  By now you are familiar with the rules of the game; this image is from a manuscript somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is part of our medieval collections.  You can either leave your guesses below in the comments, or get in touch with us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Good luck!

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01 March 2014

A Calendar Page for March 2014

For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The agricultural labours of the year are shown beginning in earnest in these calendar pages for the month of March.  On the first folio, two men and a woman are continuing the work of vine-trimming that was begun in February, while one man pauses for much-needed refreshment.  On the following folio, the listing of March's saints' days and feasts continues.  In the roundel below can be found a ram (inexplicably lacking his horns) for the zodiac sign Aries.  Beneath him is another well-bundled labourer turning the earth in a field in preparation for planting.

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Calendar page for March, with a roundel miniature of two men and a woman at work trimming vines, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 3v

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Calendar page for March, with a roundel miniature of a man turning earth below the zodiac sign Aries, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4r

- Sarah J Biggs