THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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15 posts from December 2014

31 December 2014

The Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

Before 2014 is out, we’d like to say a big thank-you to all our readers for your support of the BL Medieval blog and your interest in the work that we do.

Back in April, we were honoured to receive a National UK Blog Award (Arts & Culture category), beating off stiff competition from the Tate, Horror Cult Films and other organisations. The award was made after an online ballot in which 16,000 votes were cast – so we literally couldn’t have done it without you!

In the course of the year, we’ve also passed another major milestone: the blog has now received over 1.5 million hits! Can we break the 2 million barrier in 2015? 

Add_ms_49622_f193v
Detail of a knight fighting a snail, from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v
 

So which posts have helped us to achieve this fantastic result? Two in particular, written in previous years, remain at the top of the tree: our ‘discovery’ of the Unicorn Cookbook, and our study of the those bitter enemies who slug it out (no pun intended) in the margins, Knight vs Snail. For 2014, however, here is the top ten, in reverse order: 

10. The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts 

Arundel_ms_66_f033v
Detail of a miniature of the constellation ‘Draco’, from an astrological compilation with political prophecies, England (London?), 1490,
Arundel MS 66, f. 33v 

Here are some depictions of scribes hard at work from the pages of British Library manuscripts: pen in hand, eyes fixed in concentration over the page, labouring over desks and lecterns. 

9. A Calendar Page for April 2015 

Add_ms_38126_f004v
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 

Manuscript miniatures offer wonderful insights into the medieval world...but there’s just something a bit odd about these ones. 

8. A Medieval Comic Strip 

Egerton_ms_1894_f005v
Detail of a miniature of the building of the Tower of Babel, from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, England (Norwich or Durham?), 3rd quarter of the 14th century,
Egerton MS 1894, f. 5v 

Inspired by the British Library’s exhibition Comics Unmasked, this post takes a closer look at the Egerton Genesis Picture Book, which contains 149 illustrations of the Book of Genesis, from Creation to the story of Joseph, with captions from the Historia scholastica. 

7. How to be a Hedgehog 

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Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library,
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r 

We love it when people are inspired by British Library manuscripts to make things: here’s an animation about a hedgehog’s life, according to one of our bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII). 

6. Sex and Death in the Roman de la Rose 

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Detail of a miniature of the Lover being beaten by Honte (‘Shame’), Peur (‘Fear’) and Dangier (‘Danger’), from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490-c. 1500,
Harley MS 4425, f. 131v 

Beatings, murder, mutilation, suicide – oh, and handholding, dancing, music and polite courtship – in the miniatures of a beautiful 15th-century copy of Guillaume de Lorris’s staple of medieval romance literature, the Roman de la Rose. 

5. Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary 

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r
Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century,
Harley MS 4751, f. 11r 

We’ve found our animal posts are always popular, but we think you’d struggle to find the bonnacon cute – and don’t make eye contact with the basilisk! 

4. Anatomy of a Dragon 

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Detail of a miniature of a dragon attacking and suffocating an elephant, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210,
Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r 

We all know about St George – but what about his reptilian foe? Here’s a look at dragons across a range of medieval manuscripts, from bestiaries (apparently they prey on elephants) to astrological texts and apocalypses. 

3. The Three Living and the Three Dead 

Harley MS 2917, f. 119r
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 

Need a sober reminder of man’s mortality and the inevitability of his demise? Look no further! 

2. An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love 

Egerton MS 881, f. 141v
Detail of a miniature of Mars and Venus being discovered in bed by Vulcan, from the ‘Roman de la Rose’, France (Paris?), c. 1380,
Egerton MS 881, f. 141v 

There still time to prepare for Valentine’s Day next year, singletons, so don’t despair: read our handy guide to the do’s and don’ts of courtship. 

1. Bugs in Books 

Royal MS 20 A IV, f. 3v
Detail of a grasshopper, from a copy of Martin de Brion's Description of the Holy Land, France (?Paris), c. 1540, Royal MS 20 A IV
, f. 3v 

Not actual bugs – goodness, no! – but the butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and other creepy crawlies that are found to populate the decorative borders of British Library manuscripts. 

- James Freeman

29 December 2014

Been Around the World: Exhibition Loans in 2014

The British Library has a long track record in supporting exhibitions at home and abroad – and 2014 has been no different.  This year has seen medieval manuscripts from the British Library travel near and far to a great diversity of exhibitions.  Here are some of the highlights: 

Mapping Our World: National Library of Australia, Canberra, 7 November 2013-10 March 2014 

Royal_ms_14_c_ix_ff001v-002r
A two-page mappa mundi from the beginning of a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, late 14th century,
Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2r 

This fascinating exhibition took a look at how people through the ages had drawn and depicted the world around them in maps, atlases and charts.  Medieval mappae mundi are an important facet of this story, containing not just geographical but also theological, historical and legendary material.  Two manuscripts that contained a mappa went to Canberra for the exhibition: a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (Royal MS 14 C IX) and a copy of Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio (Harley MS 2772). 

Set in Stone? How Our Ancestors Saw Stonehenge: Stonehenge Visitor Centre, 18 December 2013-14 September 2014 

Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century,
Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r 

Stonehenge has remained a source of fascination and speculation over the centuries, as this exhibition illustrated with two British Library manuscripts: Egerton MS 3028, a copy of Wace’s Roman de Brut; and Cotton MS Nero D VIII, a large compilation of historical texts, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.  Along with his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey was one of the earliest chroniclers to comment on the monument and weave a story about its origins.  Wace used Geoffrey’s fantastical work of history for his own Roman de Brut, a verse epic in French about Britain’s ancient kings.  The copy in Egerton MS 3028 is remarkable for containing the earliest depiction of the monument: specifically, of Merlin lifting a lintel on top of two of the standing stone, to the evident wonderment of onlookers. 

Vikings: Life and Legend: British Museum, 6 March-22 June 

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King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae,
Stowe MS 944, f. 6r 

The New Minster Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944) formed part of an exhibition that challenged preconceptions about the Vikings by bringing together new research with a glittering (and often fearsome) array of treasure, loot, weaponry, jewellery and surviving fragments of a longboat.  This manuscript, begun in Winchester in 1031, opens with a full-page drawing that commemorates the presentation to the church of New Minster by King Cnut and his wife Emma (Ælfgifu) of a cross – and, significantly, their integration into the spiritual as well as temporal realms of England. 

Art and Alchemy: Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, 5 April-10 August 

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r 

Four of the British Library’s Ripley Scrolls (Add MS 5025) were on display for this exhibition, which featured works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rubens and many others.  Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure, featuring arcane experiments, human-animal hybrids, and cryptic inscriptions. 

Louis the Bavarian: Centre for Bavarian History, Regensburg, 16 May-2 November 

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Miniature of king Robert of Anjou sitting on his throne, with inscribed fleur-de-lis in the background, from the Address of the City of Prato to Robert of Anjou, Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335,
Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 10v 

Two other British Library manuscripts made the journey to Germany in the spring, for an exhibition on Louis IV, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 1328-1347.  The first loan was Royal MS 6 E IX, a lavish copy of an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou, from whom it sought protection from Louis.  The other loan was of a German Apocalypse manuscript, Add MS 15243, made in the early fourteenth century.  This manuscript is a rare survival, with a distinctive decorative style, which marks it out from the more common Latin or French Apocalypses (a blog post on this manuscript will be forthcoming in the New Year). 

Making Colour: National Gallery, 18 June-7 September 2014 

Sloane_ms_2052_f080v
Theodore Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, from ‘Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium’, England (London), 1620-1646,
Sloane MS 2052, f. 80v 

In June, the Mayerne manuscript (Sloane MS 2052) headed down the road to the National Gallery for an exhibition on the science behind the making of pigments, whether made from crushed insects or precious minerals, or acquired locally or from distant lands, and how and why they might deteriorate over time.  Theodore Mayerne (d. 1655), court physician to James I and Charles I, assembled a notebook that records his own personal experiments with colour, including notes taken from leading artists of the day, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. 

The Art of Charlemagne: Centre Charlemagne, Aachen, 20 June-21 September 

Harley_ms_2788_f072r
Incipit page at the beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, from the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (?Aachen), 1st quarter of the 9th century,
Harley MS 2788, f. 72r 

Harley MS 2788 – the Harley Golden Gospels – was on display for three months in the city of Aachen, where it may have been made in the first quarter of the ninth century.  The exhibition brought together works of art from Charlemagne’s time.  It is one of a group of books closely associated with the German emperor and his capital at Aachen, reflecting his personal initiatives and tastes.  Its name is appropriate: prefatory canon tables, a title page, full-page miniatures of the Evangelists and corresponding incipit pages are all richly illuminated with gold. 

Snip It! Stances on Ritual Circumcision: Jewish Museum, Berlin, 24 October 2014-1 March 2015 

Royal6EVI_f3
Detail of a miniature of the Circumcision of Abraham, from James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, London, c. 1360–1375, Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 3r
 

Miniatures depicting the circumcision of Abraham in two British Library manuscripts went on display in Berlin for this exhibition that explored the roots of this ritual and the Abrahamic covenant through to modern-day references in popular culture.  The Egerton Genesis (Egerton MS 1894) contains 149 miniatures in pen and colour washes, accompanied by captions derived from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica.  The first volume of James le Palmer’s unfinished encyclopaedia, the Omne bonum (Royal MS 6 E VI), is prefaced by a series of 109 tinted drawings of Old and New Testament scenes. 

The Magi: Legend, Art and Cult: Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, 25 October 2014-25 January 2015 

Add_ms_49598_f024v
The Adoration of the Magi, from the Benedictional of St
Æthelwold, England (Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 24v 

In 1164, relics of the Magi were deposited at Cologne Cathedral, where they remain.  850 years later, an exhibition looks at their important place in medieval art as the first men to recognise Christ as the Son of God.  The British Library’s contribution is the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (Add MS 49598), made 963-984, which contains a full-page illuminated miniature of the Adoration of the Magi within an ornate foliate border. 

- James Freeman

27 December 2014

Saved for the Nation: New Acquisitions in 2014

During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Catholicon Anglicum 

Add_ms_89074_f002r
Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483,
Add MS 89074, f. 2r 

This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’

Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist 

Add_ms_89066!2_f079r
Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465,
Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r 

Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it! 

John Ponet’s copy of a treatise against clerical marriage 

Add_ms_89067_f001r
Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554,
Add MS 89067, f. 1r 

This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history. 

And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month: 

Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory

The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...

 

- James Freeman

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Everyone at the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Or perhaps that should be ‘¡Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo!’, since our Guess the Manuscript Christmas Special was taken from a Spanish manuscript: Add MS 28962, the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon. 

Add_ms_28962_f337v
Miniature of the Nativity, from the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon, Spain (Valencia), 1436-1443,
Add MS 28962, f. 337v 

This miniature marks the beginning of the Second Joy of the Virgin Mary. In this Book of Hours, there are seven such joys – beginning with the Annunciation (f. 336v), and continuing after the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi (f. 338v), the Resurrection (f. 339v), Christ’s Ascension (f. 340v), and the Pentecost (f. 341v), and ending with the Dormition and Mary’s Coronation in Heaven (f. 342v). 

Add_ms_28962_f338v
Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi,
Add MS 28962, f. 338v 

The Joys of the Virgin Mary – often paralleled, as here, by a series of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary – was the most popular of the various ‘secondary’ texts that could comprise part of a Book of Hours. The number of Joys is known to have varied between five and fifteen, with such events as the Visitation of Our Lady, the Conception of Christ, the Presentation and Purification in the Temple, Christ among the Doctors and others included in the series. Popularized in thirteenth century Italy and later adopted especially by the Franciscans, the Joys of the Virgin Mary were depicted very widely in manuscripts and other forms of medieval art, such as wall and panel paintings. Mary’s Five Joys are also cited in Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X, art. 3) as the source from which the eponymous hero derives his fortitude (‘forsnes’). They were even used by Robert Fabyan (d. 1513) to divide his chronicle into seven parts (the manuscript copy of which survives in two volumes: the first is Holkham Hall, MS 671, the second Cotton MS Nero C XI). 

Add_ms_28962_f312r
Miniature of Alphonso V of Aragon at prayer, with his arms contained within a coloured initial below,
Add MS 28962, f. 312r 

The present Book of Hours was originally commissioned in 1436 by Juan de Casanova (b. 1387, d. 1436), a Dominican monk, for Alphonso V of Aragon, whom he served as confessor. It was taken on by the workshop of Domingo Crespí and his son in Valencia, but repeated delays meant that the book was not finished until 1443. Its intended destination is obvious, however: the manuscript contains a miniature of Alphonso V on horseback and several of him at prayer, in addition to his coat of arms in numerous places.

 - James Freeman

23 December 2014

Between Manuscript and Print: Greek Manuscripts from the Circle of Aldus Manutius

The year 2015 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius, founder of the famous Aldine press at Venice. A wide range of activities are taking place worldwide to commemorate the occasion, including a free exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, entitled “Collecting the Renaissance: the Aldine Press 1494-1598”.

Treasures Gallery 6 624x351
Collecting the Renaissance: The Aldine Press (1494-1598), on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library

Aldus’ pivotal role in the early history of the printed book is well known. For scholars of Greek literature, he deserves special thanks. Early attempts to set Greek type had proved difficult, and demand for printed books in Greek was low. While Aldus was not the first to print Greek books, he certainly was the first to do so on a large scale. Most of the principal classical Greek authors were first set in type by the Aldine press.

The texts themselves were edited by a large group of scholars, many of Cretan origin. Aldus formed a club of Greek scholars, called the Neakademia (the New Academy), at which only Greek could be spoken. The great numbers of Greek manuscripts that can be attributed, with some confidence, to Venice at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century are at least partly a result of the efforts of Aldus Manutius.

Erotemata 1495
Constantine Lascaris, Erotemata, with the Latin translation of Johannes Crastonus Placentinus. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1495. IA.24382

The first edition published in Greek by the Aldine press was the grammar of Constantine Lascaris, a fifteenth-century Greek scholar who, like many other Greeks, came to Italy in the wake of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

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Harley MS 5741, f 3r. Constantine Lascaris, Erotemata, copied in Italy by George Alexandrou, at the end of the 15th century

A manuscript of part of the work dating from around the same time is now preserved in the British Library, copied by the scribe George Alexandrou, possibly at Rome. Though the manuscript cannot be linked with Manutius' circle, it nonetheless provides us with a fascinating juxtaposition of manuscript and print in the late fifteenth century.

Manutius 1515 grammar
Aldi Manutii Romani Grammaticae Institutiones Graecae. Edited by Marcus Musurus. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1515

The British Library holds one of the great collections of Aldine books in the world. It also holds a number of manuscripts that can be attributed to scribes and scholars from the Aldine circle. Of course, as scribes often moved around, and worked on a variety of projects, we should be cautious of making the leap from ascribing a manuscript to an individual scribe, to localising it in the context of the Aldine press. Nonetheless, the manuscripts and scribes listed below attest to the vibrant scholarly culture in northern Italy, and in Venice in particular, at the turn of the 16th century.

A note: not all of these manuscripts have been digitised at the time of writing (December 2014), but this post will be updated periodically as the Greek Manuscripts digitisation project continues.

Some Greek scribes known to have associated with Aldus Manutius

Burney_ms_96_f144r detail
Burney MS 96, f 144r, detail, verses by Marcus Musurus

Marcus Musurus (b. c. 1470, d. 1517). By far the most important of Aldus’ Greek collaborators, Musurus was a Cretan scholar who subsequently worked with John Lascaris. His hand can be seen in Harley MS 5577, a manuscript of Dionysius Periegetes and Eustathius, and above all in Burney MS 96, a manuscript of the Minor Attic Orators completed at Florence in the early 1490s, to which Musurus appended a set of verses.

George Moschus, of Corfu, worked as a corrector at the Aldine press. His hand is to be found in part of Add MS 11890, a collaborative set of scholia on Oppian’s Halieutica, in the margins of the first seven folios of Harley MS 5611, works on Galen (not yet digitised), and the entirety of Burney MS 110, Zenobius’ Epitome.

Johannes Cuno (b. 1462/3, d. 1513), Dominican monk and German humanist. Cuno spent time in Venice in the 1490s and worked closely with Aldus. Arundel MS 550 (not yet digitised) is Cuno’s own notebook relating to Greek materials.

Burney 62 f 2r detail
Burney MS 62, f 2r, detail. Beginning of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, copied by the scribe known as the Anonymus Harvardianus

Anonymus Harvardianus. So named after a manuscript at the Houghton Library, Harvard (MS Gr 17), where the hand was first identified, the work of this scribe can be seen in many manuscripts with links to the Aldine press, including Burney MS 62, containing Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica with scholia, vitae, and epigrams.

Aristobulus Apostolis (b. 1468/9, d. 1535), of Crete. His hand can be seen on two leaves (ff 54r-55v) of Arundel MS 522.

Zacharias Calliergis (b. before 1473, d. after 1524), of Crete. Responsible in part for Royal MS 16 C XXIV, a manuscript of Athenaeus’ Depinosophistae. His hand can also be seen on the outer bifolium of a quire in Harley MS 1814, now ff 1r-v and 8r-v (the text is Dionysius Periegetes).

Manuel Gregoropulus (d. 1532), of Crete, responsible for ff 9r-19v and 22r-41v of Harley MS 5597, containing the text of Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica Book 1.

John Rhosos (d. 1498). Though not a member of the Neakademia, Rhosos does seem to have associated with Aldus and his circle. He worked in particular for Cardinal Bessarion, and a number of manuscripts copied by him are now in the British Library: Add MS 10064, Burney MS 93 (not yet digitised), Harley MS 5597, Harley MS 5600, Harley MS 5658, Harley MS 5669, Harley MS 5672, Harley MS 5737, Harley MS 5790, Harley MS 6322, Harley MS 6325.

 - Cillian O'Hogan

“Collecting the Renaissance: the Aldine Press 1494-1598” will be on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 25 January 2015.

20 December 2014

Guess the Manuscript XVIII - Christmas Special

Less than a week to go until Christmas! We thought we'd treat you to another Guess the Manuscript - we know you love them - but this time with a festive twist...

Guess the MS XVIII
Carol singing, medieval-style - but where might you find these three angels? 

Answers, as usual, through the comments box below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval

Hurry! The answer will be revealed on Christmas Day... 

- James Freeman

19 December 2014

Handle With Care: The Conservation and Digitisation of the Phillipps Lectionary

Before British Library manuscripts reach your computer screens through the Digitised Manuscripts site, they are subjected to conservation assessments. These cover such matters as the angle at which the manuscript may be opened safely, the condition of the binding and the leaves, and any repairs that are required. The assessment for Add MS 82957 – the Phillipps Lectionary – was particularly detailed. The content and decoration of this manuscript, and the damage it sustained during its nine-hundred-and-fifty-odd-year life, have been covered in earlier blog posts. This latest instalment concerns the most recent chapter in its history: the repairs that were conducted to make it fit to be handled and photographed, and the digitisation process itself. 

Joints
Details of the joints between the front (L) and rear (R) binding and the spine, showing small splits, from the Phillipps Lectionary,
Add MS 82957 

The first conservation task was to do minor repairs to the binding, as the joints were starting to split. A delicate balance had to be struck between doing as little as possible to an unusual binding, and making it strong enough to cope with the repeated opening and closing that the rest of the conservation process would involve. 

Add_ms_82957_f065r_detail
Detail of repairs to rodent damage along the fore-edge of the manuscript,
Add MS 82957, f. 65r 

The objective was then to make the leaves safe enough to be handled for digitisation. The edges of the leaves had been weakened by mould and shredded by rodents – a grim combination! To repair these, fine Japanese tissues were used. They were pre-coated with a 2% isinglass solution and then reactivated with the same solution, in order to minimise the addition of moisture to the parchment. A benefit of isinglass is that it has immediate tack.  With heavily cockled parchment, as here, this is very useful, as it means that the parchment does not have to be flattened first before repairs are made. Fleeces, which can conform to such uneven surfaces better than blotting paper, were used to dry the repairs. 

Add_ms_82957_f012v_detail
Detail of repairs made to rodent damage and a tear,
Add MS 82957, f. 12v 

In very weak areas, tissues were pre-coated with Klucel G: a consolidant that can be reactivated with ethanol. This avoids any moisture at all being added to the parchment – but it must be used with great care, because ethanol can also damage the structure of the parchment. 

Some areas were dry cleaned before repairs were placed, so long as it could be done safely, but the manuscript was not especially dirty overall. Detached fragments were reattached where their original location could be determined; a small number of other loose fragments are now stored separately with the manuscript. 

Add_ms_82957_f229r_detail
A detached portion of a partial leaf, now reattached in its original position,
Add MS 82957, f. 229r  

Two leaves that had been cut in half and left loose were rejoined in their original positions. 

Add_ms_82957_f161br
The silk bookmark after its repair,
Add MS 82957, f. 161r 

The silk bookmark attached to the binding was also in two pieces, and was joined together using silk crepeline. 

Add_ms_82957_helping hands
Full shot of the manuscript in a V-shaped cradle, with two people using fingers to hold the leaf in place
 

Once the manuscript had been conserved, it was possible for it to undergo digitisation. To protect against any further damage, our conservator and a member of the manuscripts team accompanied the manuscript throughout. A condition of digitisation was that a V-shaped cradle be used, in order best to support the manuscript. The photographer used an angled camera to shoot the manuscript. Two assistants were ‘on hand’ (literally!) to keep the leaves in place (a future blog post will look at the plastic ‘fingers’ that are being used). The photography took a full day to complete, with further image processing and quality checking taking some additional hours on top of that. 

The fragility of the Phillipps Lectionary means that, for the sake of its conservation, access to the manuscript must be restricted. Digitisation – undertaken with proper preparation and the assistance of skilled conservators and photographers – means that it is still possible for researchers to consult the object in the digital realm, and arguably enjoy a closer look through high resolution images than would ever be possible with the naked eye. In cases such as this, where the book’s covers must remain closed, digitisation is opening them up again to the world, for all to see. 

- James Freeman & Ann Tomalak

17 December 2014

Tudor Scribe and Spy at No. 2 in the Official Classical Charts

A new recording of a magnificent choirbook produced for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, one of the great treasures in the British Library’s music collections, reached number 2 in the Classical Charts in the first week of its release in October 2014.

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Detail of a historiated initial with the Tudor rose and pomegranate, from the Choirbook of Petrus Alamire, Southern Netherlands, c. 1516,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Containing mostly motets for four voices by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other leading Continental composers, this volume is representative of the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time. To celebrate the first complete recording of all 34 pieces, full coverage of this beautifully illuminated volume is now freely available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Cantus and tenor parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

The rich sounds of early sixteenth-century polyphony, as notated in Royal MS 8 G VII, have been recreated by the choir Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, under the directorship of Dr David Skinner. Here is a sound-clip of the opening piece:

Celeste beneficium


Released as ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, the CD’s title refers to the colourful history of its famous scribe, Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), from whom Skinner’s ensemble borrows its name. In addition to making several similar choirbooks for other European courts, Petrus Alamire was a composer, mining engineer, and diplomat. He acted as a spy for Henry VIII, informing him of the movements of Richard de la Pole, the exiled pretender to the English crown. Surviving letters to the King and to Richard de la Pole suggest that Alamire was simultaneously engaged in counter-espionage. Perhaps gifting this manuscript to Henry was one way for Alamire to smooth over his double-dealing.

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Alto and bass parts of the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 3r

Naturalistic foliage, birds and insects, common to the south Netherlandish style of illumination, are combined with Tudor symbols such as the dragon and greyhound ‘supporters’ of the royal arms (f. 2v), and heraldic badges including the portcullis, the double rose, and the pomegranate (f. 3r). The exact circumstances of its presentation to Henry and Catherine are unknown, and it has been suggested that the manuscript may originally have been intended for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. ‘Celeste beneficium’, for example, was composed for the French couple, and its text calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to help bring forth children.

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Detail of ‘HK’ in the place of stamens in the marginal flora and fauna,
Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v

It is not difficult, however, to imagine the relevance of this text to Henry and Catherine’s pressing need for a male heir. The following two motets (‘Adiutorium nostrum’ and ‘Nesciens mater virgo virum’) continue this theme, and the fusion of Catherine’s emblem, the pomegranate, with the Tudor double rose, is another probable reference to the desire for progeny (see opening image above). Further evidence to support the idea that this manuscript was designed with Henry in mind appears in a tiny detail amidst the flora and fauna of the marginal decoration: the ‘HK’ which serves to substitute the stamens surely refers to ‘Henricus’ and ‘Katharina’. If the intended patrons did change, this must have occurred extremely early in the manuscript’s production.

Adiutorium nostrum


Whatever the case, there is little doubt that this book would have greatly appealed to the King. Henry received a thorough musical education: he played several instruments, sang from sight and composed and arranged music. Indeed, it was Henry’s desire to bring the finest musicians in Europe to play and sing at his court which brought Petrus Alamire into close contact.

Now, perhaps for the first time since Henry’s post-dinner entertainment, we can appreciate the full aural and visual magnificence of this unique volume. See here for further details about the CD, and experience Royal MS 8 G VII in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.

- Holly James-Maddocks & Nicolas Bell