THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from April 2014

10 April 2014

My Kingdom for a Horse

Recently we had an enquiry about an unusual image that appears in the Rochester Bestiary.  This famous English book of beasts, which dates to the mid-13th century, has featured quite prominently in our ongoing series about medieval animals; have a look at our posts about lions, beavers, dogs, wolves, elephants, and hedgehogs, for example. 

The particular miniature in question can be seen below.  ‘Why,’ asks our slightly tongue-in-cheek correspondent, ‘are those horses having a cuddle?’.

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Detail of a miniature of two horses and two men, from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

At first glance, it certainly does appear that this is what’s going on here.  We are sad to report, however, that the truth is not quite so full of squee – rather than cuddling, these horses are in fact fighting one another.   An inscription in French intended to guide the illuminator can be found beside the miniature, telling us that it is meant to represent two knights and two horses engaged in combat (see below for a detail of this inscription).

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Detail of an inscription beside the miniature of the two horses and two men, altered to increase legibility, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

This is a fascinating scene, and as far as we can tell, a unique one among bestiary images.  The Rochester Bestiary is notable in that the miniatures illustrating each animal appear at the end of the relevant section, rather than at the beginning (for an example of the latter, see the Royal Bestiary:  Royal MS 12 C XIX).  The Royal Bestiary gives us a much more typical example of the kind of horse to be found in the book of beasts:

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Detail of a miniature of a horse at the beginning of the text about that animal, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 34r

A horse (of course) was an animal that every medieval reader would have been familiar with, and so most bestiaries depict the animal just as they are, with little in the way of drama or exposition in the scene.  The Rochester miniature is different, although we're not sure why.  However, there are a few clues – albeit indirect ones – in the text preceding this fascinating scene.

Horses in the early medieval period were largely the possessions of the aristocracy and warrior classes, and the bestiary text reflects their crucial role in battle.  Horses, we are told, rejoice in winning and are disheartened by defeat, and some can become so carried away that they will bite their enemies whilst fighting.  But most importantly, a noble horse is loyal to his noble master, will ‘suffer no one except their master to ride them’, and will weep at the death of its owner.  Amongst many examples of loyal horses, the bestiary text provides us with the story of the horse belonging to the king of the Scythians.  This king was killed in single combat, and when his opponent tried to divest him of his armour, the king’s horse attacked, biting and kicking until he was killed himself.

This is not exactly what is going on in the Rochester scene, but it’s as close as we can come.  We have here a depiction of a story that is not reflected in any of the canonical bestiary texts – nor any others that we have yet uncovered.  We see two horses so faithful to their masters that when the warriors are fighting, the horses mirror their aggression and attack one another.  Whether this scene is reflective of a parallel narrative tradition lost to us today or simply an artist’s unique interpretation of the instructions left for him remains to be determined.

- Sarah J Biggs

08 April 2014

Fore! The British Library's Golf Book

The 2014 Masters starts at Augusta this week (that's golf for the uninitiated). And what better way to kick things off -- to mangle a sporting analogy -- than with this famous image from the Golf Book. The modern game of golf has its origins in 15th-century Scotland, when King James II had it banned, in order that his subjects should devote more of their time to practising archery. There were, however, other ancient and medieval games which resembled the game of golf, from China, Persia and Rome, among other places. Some say that golf developed from cambuca (chambot in French), a game played with a stick and a wooden ball that was taken up in the Low Countries and Germany.

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A game resembling golf in the Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

We very much doubt that the modern golf professionals playing at Augusta will care for these niceties. But they might be interested to see this page from the British Library's Golf Book (Add MS 24098, available in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site). We have featured this manuscript before, most notably as our calendar for 2013 (see the month of September) and in the post A Good Walk Spoiled. The splendid book in question was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and the illumination is attributable to the famous Simon Bening (d. 1561) and his workshop.

You may wonder if the players in the bas-de-page scene are engaged in golf or in a game similar to cambuca. But we do suspect that the name "the Cambuca Book" would never have taken on, don't you agree? Watch out for those flying golf balls ...

Julian Harrison

05 April 2014

Royal Manuscripts Follow-on Project - Completed!

The Royal Manuscripts project team are pleased to announce that with the publication of 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, edited by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick, published by British Library Publications, the AHRC-funded follow-on to the Royal Manuscripts research project has been successfully concluded. 

Editors
Kathleen Doyle, Scot McKendrick, and 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts

In February 2012, the AHRC made an additional grant to the Library under the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact scheme, to enhance the research undertaken for the original Royal: Illuminated Manuscripts of the Kings and Queens of England project, and its dissemination.  As a digital enhancement project, the principal goal was to augment the resources on Royal manuscripts available to researchers on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  Regular readers of the blog will know that we have published regular updates on the project of this digitisation (see the links at the end of this post).

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God the creator, from a Bible Historiale, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

The goal of the follow-on project was to provide freely-accessible full online digital coverage of 24,750 pages from approximately 40-50 manuscripts featured in the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illuminated exhibition held at the British Library 11 November 2011-13 March 2012.  This objective was met and exceeded with 71 manuscripts now available on the website.  Thanks to all of you who provided ideas for digitisation selection.

Durham workshop

The project had two other objectives.  The first was to convene two workshops to allow students and scholars to build on the existing research undertaken as part of the Royal project by analysing texts and images of these manuscripts in collaboration with other researchers.  One workshop was held at Durham University on 6 June 2012, hosted by Professor Richard Gameson, Department of History.  At the workshop eleven undergraduate students presented papers on manuscripts included in the Royal exhibition, and Roger Middleton, Lecturer Emeritus, Department of French Literature at the University of Nottingham, presented a live display of the new research capabilities of the Digitised Manuscripts website.  The second workshop was designed for post-graduate students, and was held in London on 9 November 2012.  This workshop explored the research possibilities of digitisation in a seminar examining three original manuscripts together with their magnified digital images.

The third output was the publication of the book, which is a collection of ten essays on the development of Royal libraries, enhancing and building on the research completed for the initial Royal project.  Two of the essays (by Richard Gameson and Catherine Reynolds) were drawn from the new research presented at the Frank Davis lecture series held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in autumn 2011.  Four (by Michael Wood, Nicholas Vincent, John Goldfinch, and Jane Roberts) grew out of lectures given as part of the British Library lecture series accompanying the exhibition.  One (by James Carley) is on a royal manuscript that was once a part of the Old Royal Library but was not included in the exhibition, and so his research is presented in the volume for the first time.  The remaining three contributions (by Joanna Fronska, Scot McKendrick, and Kathleen Doyle) build on research that was undertaken for the initial Royal Manuscripts project presented in the exhibition catalogue.  Thanks to the grant provided by the AHRC, the book is extensive illustrated with ninety-four colour illustrations.   

AHRC

Previous Royal Manuscripts blog posts:

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/new-additions-to-digitised-manuscripts.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/chronicles-lancelot-and-a-journey-to-jerusalem-royal-manuscripts-now-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/gospels-psalms-and-prayer-rolls-more-royal-devotional-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/books-of-beasts-adventure-and-two-from-new-minster-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/psalters-bibles-and-the-end-of-days-devotional-texts-from-the-royal-collection-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/books-of-history-war-and-mystery-more-royal-manuscripts-go-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/crowns-romances-and-chronicles-aplenty-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/05/the-chosen-royals.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/03/keep-your-royal-suggestions-coming.html

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/which-royal-manuscripts-should-we-digitise.html

- Kathleen Doyle

03 April 2014

Stuck in Limbo: Dante's Purgatorio

As was the case for the souls condemned to Hell in Dante’s Inferno (described in our previous post No Rest for the Wicked), the punishment for those in Purgatory matches the crime.  But, unlike Hell, the punishments in Purgatory were intended to improve and purify the souls in question, those who could be saved but still needed a little improvement before making their way to Heaven. In one of the first scenes in Purgatory,  the proud bear great stones upon their backs (see below).  

Could the artist of this manuscript know that Dante included among the proud one Oderisi of Gubbio, a famed illustrator of illuminated manuscripts who took a little too much pride in his work!  Is this a warning to all of us who work in the field of manuscripts studies?

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The proud in Purgatory, Italy (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 82r

In Purgatory, the avaricious and greedy are shown lying face down on the ground.  Dante meets Pope Adrian V here.  Dante certainly wasn’t afraid to take the powerful to task for their misdeed – he even sent another Pope, Boniface VIII, straight to Hell!

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The avaricious,
Egerton MS 943, f. 97v

After passing through much of Purgatory, Dante, Virgil and another poet, Statius, must pass through a wall of fire to be worthy of reaching the Earthly Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, at the summit of Mount Purgatory (see below).

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The wall of fire, Egerton MS 943, f. 112r

Below can be seen the Garden of Eden; Dante (and the capable artist of this manuscript) drew on some unusual biblical imagery to depict the Four Evangelists here as four-headed creatures.  As the three observers in the Garden of Eden look on, a parade of Christian symbols pass them, re-enacting the drama of salvation – much like the parades that would have proceeded through Florence on every holy day.  This parade seems to be building up to something… we sense someone important is on the way, but who could it be?

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The four winged beasts in the Garden of Eden, Egerton MS 943,
f. 116v

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A griffin pulling a chariot, Egerton MS 943, f. 117r

It is Beatrice Portinari, in a chariot drawn by griffins!  Beatrice was Dante’s muse and true love, despite the fact that they only met twice in real life (and those encounters were more or less in passing).  It is here that many begin to feel a certain distance from the poem.  Dante of course wrote in the tradition of courtly love, where the beloved was meant to be entirely unattainable, but it is difficult for the modern reader to be terribly sympathetic about Dante’s deep longing for Beatrice, considering she probably had no idea who he was.  One also can’t help but feel some sympathy for Dante’s poor wife Gemma di Manetto Donati; she never got a single mention in any of his poetry (so it’s no wonder she didn’t accompany him when he was forced out of Florence!).  

Note that Dante seems a little apprehensive in the miniature below.  It almost appears as though he’s being dragged along; could it be that he senses that Beatrice isn’t very pleased to see him?

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Dante is led to Beatrice, Egerton MS 943, f. 121r

Poor Dante.  He has travelled all this way to get to his lady-love and she greets him with anger.  Many consider this to be the funniest bit of the Purgatory – Dante cowering like a hen-pecked husband while Beatrice brutally scolds him for his conduct.  She tells him that was sent by God so that her physical perfection would inspire him to contemplate the beauty of the divine, but instead he got distracted and chased after other girls.  Though she’s presented elsewhere as an idealised and static muse for Dante, our manuscript’s artist perfectly captures something of Beatrice’s fire in this scene.  

This moment really is the dramatic climax of the poem as a whole.  The meeting with Beatrice represents a chance for everything Dante longed for most, forgiveness for his sins, and a final reconciliation with his love.

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Dante and Beatrice meeting, Egerton MS 943, f. 124v

Dante is so contrite (and a little pathetic) that Beatrice eventually forgives him, and takes over from Virgil as his guide into the highest reaches of Purgatory and on to heaven.  Dante’s adoration of Beatrice as they travel in the poem is so touching that we can almost forget the strangeness of their real-life acquaintance.  Their second and final meeting, we are told, took place on a bridge in Florence, when Beatrice passed Dante by chance and smiled at him. That single moment was enough for Dante to make Beatrice’s smile the very image of divine beauty.  Heaven is simply full of smiles and laughter, in the Paradiso, the third and final act of the poem.

Stay tuned for another post about Dante’s Paradiso!

-  Arthur Westwell

01 April 2014

A Calendar Page for April 2014

Happy April everybody! And what better way to start the month than with some more sensational pages from the stupendous Huth Hours? If you have already been following our blog – and who hasn’t? – you’ll know that our calendar of the year is taken from this beautiful 15th-century manuscript (for more information, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014).


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Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

So what delights does April bring us? The promise of early spring often yields images of very pleasant labours indeed for this month, and these calendar pages from the Huth Hours are no exception. Our first folio gives us a roundel miniature of a well-dressed couple courting while walking along a garden path. The themes of fertility, birth, and rebirth are emphasised by the flowering branch being carried by the ardent young man, and by the small child following the couple (whether he is acting as chaperone or as a sign of things to come remains a bit of a mystery). The saints' days and feasts for April are continued on the following folio, along with a small painting of a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus. In the roundel below is a charming scene of a shepherd surrounded by his flock, playing a recorder for his appreciative dog. A similar musical shepherd can be found on the calendar page for April of 2013; we'll let you know if we encounter any other examples!

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Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of an aristocratic couple courting, followed by a small child, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 4v

In the background is one of the earliest representations of the infamous Leaning Tower of Utrecht. Utrecht has often been called the “Pisa of the North”, and historians have long debated how the steeple of the church of St Ignatius the Cripple came to acquire its distinctive kink. Some have attributed the lean to a lightning strike, to subsidence, or to a giant ape climbing the tower. But the image shown here is equally plausible, and seems to confirm the testimony of Lionel the Imbecile, who reported seeing mysterious lights in the sky in 1483. (Lionel was subsequently burnt at the stake by order of the anti-Pope Anacletus III, following a show trial at the Fourth Council of Constance.)

And below is our second scene, featuring the shepherd and his musical dog. Look very closely, and you can also see a startled sheep, caught in the beam of a passing spaceship, and being transported to an uncertain fate. During the 15th century, alien abductions frequently took place during the month of April; and the Huth Hours provides splendid corroboration of that fact. The artist has drawn the alien craft hovering above the trees, with the sheep being captured in a red beam arcing through the sky.


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Calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

Many critics have poured scorn on the veracity of such pictures (you can read a summary in the forthcoming festschrift for Prof. Wim van der Wende, No Pain, No Gain: Controversy and Subversion in Late Medieval Art). But we at the British Library have utter faith in their validity, and are on the hunt for other examples: let us know what you think @BLMedieval.

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Detail of a calendar page for April, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd playing music for his flock and his dog, with the zodiac sign Taurus, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 5r

- Sarah J Biggs & Julian Harrison