Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

13 posts from January 2015

08 January 2015

Point The Finger

Many people assume conservators work directly on collection items all day long, repairing and treating them so as to keep them accessible to researchers. But Conservation’s wider role is to support other library activities, which can lead to some unusual tasks. 

Recently, since new photographers have joined the digitisation teams, extra equipment has had to be made for the Imaging Studios: cradles to support books during photography, straps to secure them and “fingers” – plastic strips that hold springy leaves flat. Although a variety of equipment is now available commercially (and is used in our high volume digitisation projects), none of it quite fits our requirements for the safe handling of old and fragile manuscripts. The first rule is always “do no damage”, so tools are adjusted to the needs of the individual manuscript, not the other way round. All materials used must be of conservation quality, and must also be soft and smooth, so there is no possibility of marking the manuscript, or of snagging and damaging fragile edges. 

Photo 1
A bound manuscript secured in the cradle.  The fixed camera is above it, looking down.

Ideally, once settled in the cradle, the folio being photographed will lie absolutely flat, but often it springs up. Occasionally, in photographs taken many years ago, a human fingertip can be seen resting on the edge of the leaf, but this means a second person (with clean, dry hands) must be present.  Historically, photographers used office equipment to hold leaves down – you may imagine the fuss the conservators made when they saw bulldog clips in images! Briefly, plastic paper clips were trialled, with the same response (for example, the Kerdeston Hawking Book, Add MS 82949, f.1v). Even now, when we spot these in digitised manuscripts, the Imaging Studio may get an email to check the photograph was not taken recently. Other institutions have different solutions: melinex strips, or even kebab sticks, but these days the British Library mainly uses shaped acrylic strips (aka “fingers”) which are clamped in a stand with a rotating joint, so they can be moved aside quickly. 

Photo 2
James Freeman, with hand-held fingers, facilitating the photography of parchment stubs in the gutter of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074).

To make a pair of fingers, the conservator first makes a visit to Exhibitions, hunting for off-cuts of Plexiglas® 10-15mm wide, 5mm deep and at least 1m long. Back in the BLCC, the strip is halved, giving two identical 50cm lengths, and the shaping begins. This is best done by hand, as power tools heat the plastic too quickly. First, all the edges and corners are rounded off with a file. One end is reduced in thickness and shaped to a gently rounded point – making sure each pair is near-identical. 

Photo 3
A pair of roughly-shaped fingers. 

Then the sanding begins, working through every grade from P240 to P2500 wherever the file has touched, to remove all scratches and give a clear, smooth surface. The end of the finger should be translucent, so that it is scarcely seen in digital images, but it may have to be dulled slightly, to prevent flare. The whole process takes half a day.  

Photo 4
On the left, sanding has just begun; on the right it is almost finished. 

Mostly the fingers are fairly robust, but to facilitate the digitisation of the Brontë miniature books some tiny ones were fashioned from various diameters of acrylic rods. Even so, they look huge in the images. Making them was a challenge as the thin rods snapped if flexed too much during shaping. However, a 15cm length was sufficient as they were hand-held for imaging, not used in a clamp-stand. These books gave us another problem: no blank margins. The fingers were placed wherever they would not obscure text.  

Photo 5
A finger just visible at the foot of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v 

Photo 6
And showing the size of the manuscript (Ashley MS 157).

Generally we try to show as little of the fingers as possible once the photographs are cropped, but they have a starring role in a couple of images of a Greek manuscript, Add MS 82957. Even with two people handling the manuscript for the photographer, we had a little trouble holding flat a damaged leaf and securing the scale – as can be seen here:

Photo 7
Add MS 82957, f.280r   

Not every book needs fingers but, for those that do, their unobtrusive presence in a digital photograph ensures the viewer gets a clear and focused image.

- Ann Tomalak

06 January 2015

A New Year, A New Giant List of Manuscript Hyperlinks

Here’s an update of all the manuscripts that have been published to Digitised Manuscripts by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section here at the British Library. 

Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 01.01.15

We publish these lists every three months: January, April, July and October.  According to the list, we now have 1220 manuscripts and detached bindings available to view online in their entirety (at the last count, it was 1111, so we’ve been busy!).  It’s a great tool for exploring the collection, so enjoy!

Detail of a miniature of St John sitting in a cave on the island of Patmos, from a German Apocalypse, early 14th century, Add MS 15243, f. 2v

- James Freeman

05 January 2015

Melvyn Bragg and The Road to Magna Carta

To mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a four-part series on this iconic document. Presented by Melvyn Bragg, Magna Carta was recorded in part at the British Library, and features Claire Breay (our Head of Medieval Manuscripts) and other members of the Magna Carta Project, including Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Professor David Carpenter (King's College, London) and Professor Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University).

Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg looking at Magna Carta with Claire Breay

Episode 1, The Road to Magna Carta, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 5 January, at 09:00, and will subsequently be available to listeners in the United Kingdom via the BBC iPlayer. The remaining episodes, Runnymede, 1215, The Aftermath of Magna Carta, and The Legacy of Magna Carta, will be aired at the same time this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 6-8 January.

2015 represents a very exciting year for Magna Carta at the British Library. We are holding our own blockbuster exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, opening to the public on 13 March, and curated by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. In addition to displaying our two manuscripts of the original 1215 Magna Carta, we will be featuring other key documents, books and artefacts associated with the history and legacy of the Great Charter, including two major loans from the United States of America.We will be blogging more about the exhibition in the coming months. Meanwhile, in February we will be hosting all four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, from the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, when they are brought together for the very first time

Listen if you can to BBC Radio 4 this Monday -- we hope you enjoy the programme!

Julian Harrison

03 January 2015

Cicero's Map to the Stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on 3 January 106 BC, bestrides Latin literature like a colossus. The combination of an immense output of writings and a strong afterlife in the schools of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, means that more manuscripts of Cicero’s work survive than of any other classical Latin author. Only Augustine of Hippo can claim a more fertile manuscript tradition.

4329 130r
Harley MS 4329, f 130r. Miniature of Cicero debating the nature of friendship. From a manuscript containing translations of the De Senectute and De Amicitia into French by Laurent de Premierfait. France, Central (Tours), 1460.

Cicero’s popularity should come as no surprise. His speeches and rhetorical treatises (together with the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, erroneously attributed to Cicero) were the cornerstone of Latin education for generations. Ciceronian style became the benchmark against which other Latin prose was measured. During the Renaissance, the extent to which Cicero should be followed as a model was a matter of fierce debate.

4766 66r
Harley MS 4796, f 66r, detail. Historiated initial of Cicero and his son in discussion. From a Spanish translation of the De Officiis, De Senectute, and Pro Marcello. Spain, N., 1st half of the 15th century.

In addition to his rhetorical works, Cicero’s letters give a great insight into the world of the late Roman Republic – both the public world, in which he was of course actively involved, and everyday private life. Finally, there is Cicero’s great output of philosophical literature. Not only did this have the virtue of contributing greatly to the development of a Latin vocabulary for philosophical terms, it also constitutes a serious advancement in philosophical learning in itself. Indeed, Cicero’s philosophical works were probably the most popular of his works during the Middle Ages, and provided important points of entry into Greek philosophy for medieval scholars without any knowledge of Greek.

One part of Cicero’s output that has traditionally been less highly valued has been his poetry. Partly because of one notorious verse, o fortunam natam me consule Romam (“Happy Rome, born when I was consul”), and partly because he was eclipsed by the astonishing virtuosity achieved by the poets of the next generation (especially Catullus and Lucretius), it is only recently that scholars have begun to turn a more sympathetic eye to Cicero’s verse.

647 f 10v
Harley MS 647, f 10v, detail. Eridanus.

The situation was different in the Middle Ages, however, and one of Cicero’s most popular works was a translation of the Phaenomena of the Hellenistic poet Aratus. This poem, which describes the constellations, was hugely popular in antiquity, and was repeatedly translated into Latin - by Cicero, Germanicus (grand-nephew of Augustus and father of Caligula), and Varro of Atax in the first century BC alone. Cicero prepared his version of the poem in the 80s BC, when he was in his late teens or early 20s.

647 f 19r
Harley MS 647, f 19r. Solar System.

Astronomical treatises continued to be hugely popular in the Middle Ages, and are frequently to be found in miscellaneous manuscripts. We are fortunate at the British Library to have two particularly fine decorated manuscripts of Cicero’s Aratea: Harley MS 647, and Harley MS 2506.

647 3v
Harley MS 647, f 3v. Pisces.

The Ciceronian section of Harley 647 was created in Northern France, around 820. The manuscript is a marvel: Cicero’s text is presented at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a drawing of the relevant constellation. Yet these drawings are formed out of words, taken from the relevant passages of the Astronomica of Hyginus. (You can read more about such text-pictures in a recent blog post by Erik Kwakkel). The manuscript later travelled to the Abbey of Saint Augustine at Canterbury. Three descendants of this manuscript are also now in the British Library: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, and Harley 2506.

2506 f 36v
Harley MS 2506, f 36v. Pisces.

Harley 2506 is laid out a little differently, however. Here, the drawings are rather more traditional, and the text of Hyginus is kept separate (at the beginning of the volume). Attributed to one of the artists of the Ramsey Psalter, it was created at Fleury probably in around the 990s, before being brought to England. It would be interesting to know what Cicero would have made of the fact that, of all of his works, it was the Aratea that inspired the greatest creativity in medieval scribes and illuminators.


Cillian O’Hogan

01 January 2015

A Calendar Page for January 2015

Regular readers will know that one of our blog traditions is to highlight a calendar from a particular medieval manuscript throughout the course of the year.  Past manuscripts have included the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna the Mad, the Golf Book, and the Huth Hours.  In 2015 we are pleased to present a manuscript that has featured on our blog before, the London Rothschild Hours.  Confusingly, this manuscript is often also called the Hours of Joanna the Mad (or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile), as it has been suggested that the manuscript belonged to that famous lady.

Miniature of John the Evangelist on Patmos with his symbol the eagle, being tormented by a demon and visions above, at the beginning of his suffrage, from the London Rothschild Hours (The Hours of Joanna I of Castile), Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 10v-11r

Evidence that the book was Joanna’s is tantalising, but inconclusive.  The repeated presence of Joanna’s name saint, John the Evangelist, is a potential clue, and the presence of a number of Spanish saints in the calendar suggests that it was probably produced for a member of the Spanish aristocracy.

Miniature of the Pentecost, with the Virgin Mary at the centre seated at a lectern, Add MS 35313, f. 33v

In any case, this manuscript is certainly a lavish production, and the prominent places given to women and books in the miniatures indicate that it was prepared for a noble lady who was highly literate.  Every miniature in the manuscript – and there are many – is surrounded by a detailed and extravagant border, often containing animals, flowers, or jewels. 

Miniature of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a jewelled border, Add MS 35313, f. 223v

The structure of the calendar echoes the beauty of the rest of the manuscript.  Each folio contains a single month, beginning with a small painting of the sign of the zodiac at the top.  Below this is the listing of the saints’ days for the month, and, unusually, every slot is filled with an observance or feast.  Even more unusual are the roundels on the outer edge of the folio that contain illustrations of the most important saints’ days, those days marked in red on the calendar (which is where we get our contemporary phrase ‘red letter days’).  At the bottom of each calendar page is a miniature of the labour for that month, painted by one of the most accomplished Flemish illuminators of the day.

Calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Our calendar for January begins with a particularly charming scene.  The traditional labour for this wintery month is to feast before a fire, and at the bottom of the folio we can see a couple preparing to do just that in their bedchamber, watched by an attentive cat.  Outside, a bundled man appears to be making his own way home.   

Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a couple feasting indoors, and a man standing outside, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

Four saints’ days have been given red letter status in this manuscript, and one notable one is the conversion of St Paul (see below); the constraints of monochrome still allow for some sense of drama for the scene on the road to Damascus.

Detail of a roundel miniature of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from a calendar page for January, Add MS 35313, f. 1v

- Sarah J Biggs