Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from February 2015

26 February 2015

Magna Carta: The Worcester Connection

There are now just a few weeks to the opening of our magnificent Magna Carta exhibition. We're very excited today to announce that on display will be some extremely precious items loaned to us by our friends at Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

King John teeth

King John's molars, found in his coffin in 1797 (image courtesy of Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum)

For starters, you'll be able to see King John himself at the British Library this spring and summer or, at the very least, those parts of him that survive outside his tomb! John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral was opened for a brief period in 1797, and certain of his body parts removed as souvenirs. On display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be two of King John's molars, taken from the tomb by William Wood, a stationer's apprentice, and kindly being loaned to our exhibition by Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum. On show with them will be a thumb-bone, reputedly that of King John, which was returned to the cathedral in 1957. We're thrilled that we are going to have these items in our Magna Carta exhibition, and we're extremely grateful to the two institutions concerned for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us.


A piece of textile identified as the shroud wrapped round the body of King John, with a heraldic lion or "leopard" (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Worcester Cathedral will also be lending some other items to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Also found in the tomb in 1797 were some pieces of textile, identified as parts of King John's hose and shroud, together with a portion of his leather shoe. Come and admire how a medieval king was dressed, and what he wore on his feet! In addition to this, we're very pleased to announce that we will also be displaying King John's own will in our exhibition, again on loan from Worcester Cathedral. This is the earliest surviving original English royal will, and it attests to John's deteriorating condition in his final days, since he left the distribution of his effects and the administration of his kingdom to a group of close advisers, being in an unfit state to make more detailed provisions. Once again, we are delighted that this key witness to King John's final days will be on display in London, where it can be seen alongside other books and objects relating to this troubled period in English history.

Will B1693

The will of King John, October 1216 (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy promises to be the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, and the centrepiece of international celebrations to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. This could not have been made possible without the generosity of our lenders, among whom we wish to particularly acknowledge Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

Thumb bone

The thumb-bone of King John (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters, and is open from 13 March until 1 September 2015. Tickets are on sale now but beware, they are selling fast!

You can learn more about the history of Magna Carta on our dedicated site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@julianpharrison and @BLMedieval) for more updates.

King John%27s teeth%2c on loan from Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum%2c and thumb bone%2c on loan from Worcester Cathedral

The teeth and thumb-bone of King John, prior to their installation in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library

25 February 2015

Magna Carta Unification Update

It seems ages since we brought together for the first time in history the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts: in fact, it was only the beginning of February! This was a truly memorable occasion, and we thought you might like to see some film and images of that special day, when one thousand, two hundred and fifteen members of the public came to see Magna Carta ... let us know via Twitter if you are featured here.

And never fear if you were not among the lucky few. The British Library's two Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display in London from 13 March until 1 September 2015, alongside the United States Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.










19 February 2015

Written on the Edge

When you think of a bookshelf, an image comes immediately to mind: books in an orderly row, arranged alphabetically, thematically, or perhaps by height or colour, but (usually!) standing upright, with spines facing outward. But it does not necessarily follow that books were always kept in this way. In fact, our earliest visual evidence for bookshelves, or book storage, suggests that books were laid flat, sometimes on individual shelves, and often with fore-edge or lower edge facing outwards, rather than the spine. Some evidence that this continued to be the case, both in the Latin west and in the Byzantine world, is given by the existence of decorations, titles, or other writing, on the edges of manuscripts.


Egerton MS  2610. Cretan-style decorated fore-edge. Similar decoration can be seen on the edges of Royal MS 1 A XV.

Writing on edges could potentially be of great use to scholars in reconstructing Byzantine libraries, or in assigning provenance. But the barriers to such research are daunting, not least since the details of such writing are not always recorded in catalogue entries.Moreover, the text is often extremely difficult to read, because of the dirt that has accrued on the edges that have faced outwards in a library or study for centuries. And it is a challenge to photograph edges clearly, especially in manuscripts that have been rebound, such that the binding extends beyond the text-block and casts a shadow over the edges. But it would be very interesting to know whether, for instance, the relative brevity or length of titles could give clues as to whether the manuscript was owned by a private individual (who may only have needed one copy of a Nomocanon) or by a monastic or imperial library. In the hopes of making such a study easier, we provide here a brief list of Greek manuscripts in the British Library with writing on the fore-edge or lower edge. Unfortunately, not all of these edges can be seen online at present, but those not online have been transcribed where possible.


Add MS 39609, containing Isaiah of Scetis, Asceticon. Writing on the upper edge: + ΑΒΒΑ(?) ΗΣΑΙΟΥ. Manuscript of the Asceticon of Isaiah of Scetis. From the Karakalou Monastery, Mount Athos.


Add MS 39610, containing John Climacus, Scala Paradisi and Liber ad Pastorem. Writing on the upper edge: […K] ΚΛΗΜΑΚΑΣ. From the Monastery of Simonopetra, Mount Athos.


Burney MS 55, containing Manuel Malaxos, Nomocanon. Writing on the upper edge: ΝΟΜΟΣ. Owned by Parthenius, Metropolites of Silistria.

Burney MS 94, containing grammatical and medical texts. Writing on the lower edge: XVIII.(This manuscript was written at Venice, but appears to have been in the possession of a succession of Greek monks, see the catalogue entry).


Burney MS 110, containing Zenobius, Epitome collectionum Luculli Tarrhaei et Didymi. Writing on the fore-edge: ΑΙΣΩΠΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΖΗΝΟΒΙΟΣ. Written in central or northern Italy.

Harley MS 5571, a psalter. Writing on the fore-edge: ΨΑΛΤΗΡΙΟΝ. Owned by Santa Maria in Organo at Verona (Greek and Latin ex-libris).

Harley MS 5582, a psalter. Writing on the fore-edge: + ΨΑΛΤΗ[ΡΙΟΝ] (last few letters barely legible). Written by the monk Sophonias for the hieromonk Ioseph of Syria.

Harley MS 5625, Galen, De Pulsibus. Writing on the fore-edge. ΓΑΛΗ-ΝΟΥ ΜΕΓΑΛΗ ΣΦΥ-ΓΜΙΚΗ.

Harley MS 5630, works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica 1416/7-1429. Writing on the lower edge: + ΣΥΜΕΩΝ ΤΟΥ ΜΕΓ , ΘΕΟΛΟΓΟΥ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΗΣ

Harley MS 5693, Homer’s Iliad. Writing on the fore-edge: HOMERUS, and lower edge inscribed '6[6?]’.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

17 February 2015

Re-use of images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Many of our readers will already be familiar with our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, a resource which enables you to search by shelfmark, keyword, or date, as well as by more advanced fields such as language and provenance. We thought it was about time to give a reminder that all images on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts are available for download and re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Please respect our terms and conditions. A cause for much rejoicing, we’re sure you’ll agree, and to celebrate, here are some triumphant trumpeters, all found through the search function on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts!


Harley MS 2433, f 82r. Detail of a lion playing a trumpet, from the right margin of the folio. Netherlands, S. (Ghent-Tournai area), 2nd quarter of the 15th century.


Add MS 26933, f 45v.    Detail of an initial-word panel with penwork decoration and pen-flourishing, accompanied with a bearded hybrid blowing a trumpet and carrying a shield with a fleur-de-lis, in the outer margin. Spain or Italy, 15th century.


Royal MS 2 A XVI, f 98v. Detail of a miniature of musicians with a tabor, three-hole pipe, trumpet, harp and dulcimer, at the beginning of Psalm 80. England, S. E. (London), c. 1540-1541.


Royal MS 2 B VII, f 194r. Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a donkey playing a trumpet and a cat beating a tabor. England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320.


Royal MS 3 D VI, f 234r. Detail of a miniature of a rabbit with a trumpet, from the border of the folio. England, S. (London?), between 1283 and 1300.

- Cillian O'Hogan

13 February 2015

One Month To Go

It's exactly one month until our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, opens to the public. We've been working feverishly behind the scenes to get the show ready: the builders are fitting out the gallery, the labels have been signed off, the catalogue has gone to press, and all the while we've been juggling with the historical Magna Carta unification.


The cover of the exhibition catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. The same design will appear on our exhibition poster, we hope you like it!

So what will the exhibition comprise? We can't give away any secrets just yet, save to remind you that, apart from featuring our two original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, on display will be (DRUMROLL) the American Declaration of Independence, the US Bill of Rights, and the unique royal writ ordering the publication of the Great Charter. We've recently heard that advance ticket sales have exceeded those for any previous British Library exhibition; so a huge thank you to everyone who has already taken the trouble to book, and a quick reminder to anyone else interested in doing so that you may miss out if you're not careful! And we wouldn't want that to happen ... Tickets cost £12, but there are plenty of concessions, and under 18s go free, a bargain, we think! 

Finally, a huge thank you from the curatorial team to everyone who's been working on the project, in particular our Exhibitions colleagues Susan and Alex; Barbara and the Loan Registry; our Press Officers Evie and Sophie; Rob and Sally in Publishing; Anna and the Learning team; and our conservators Gavin, Mark and Kumiko, and conservation scientists Christina and Paul. Their work often goes unheralded, so we're delighted to acknowledge it here.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters and opens at the British Library on Friday, 13 March, and runs until 1 September 2015

10 February 2015

Magna Carta Under The Proverbial Microscope

Last Wednesday, a select group of scholars and other interested observers were the first people in 800 years to compare the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts side-by-side. This one-off event was held at the British Library, and was part of the Magna Carta unification, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters. Everyone involved was thrilled to be a part of history and, equally importantly, great strides were made towards learning more about the production and later ownership of these four manuscripts, held respectively by Lincoln Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral and the British Library. More details will doubtless be published in due course on the Magna Carta Project website. In the meantime, here are some photos of our special day (you get a bonus point if you can identify all of the participants).


Chris Woods (Lincoln and Salisbury conservator), Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Tessa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge) and David Carpenter (King's College, London)


Edward Probert (Salisbury Cathedral), Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University), Philippa Hoskin (University of Lincoln)


Tessa Webber, Nicholas Vincent and David Carpenter


David Carpenter getting to grips with the Lincoln Magna Carta


Trying to identify the inscription on the back of the 'London' Magna Carta


The examination continues ...


The lucky few!

05 February 2015

The Legend of Troy in Medieval Manuscripts

Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are two superb images of the legend of Troy in medieval manuscripts from our collections – Stowe MS 54 and Harley MS 4376 – both shown below. We thought this would be a good opportunity to re-discover how the familiar stories of the Greek and Trojan wars, the abduction of Helen by Paris, the Trojan horse and the Odyssey were viewed in the Middle Ages.

The Greeks attacking Troy from the Sea, with the Greek and Trojan soldiers equipped as medieval chivalric knights from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, France (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v-83r

History mingled with chivalric romance was a very popular subject with medieval aristocrats, and they were fascinated by accounts of the heroes of ancient world, some of whom were real, like Alexander the Great, some fictional, like Oedipus and Ulysses. Fact and legend became entangled in works such as the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César, an account of the history of the ancient world from Genesis to the Roman empire, including the stories of Jason and the Golden Fleece, tales of Thebes and the adventures of Aeneas.

Paris and Helen meeting Priam outside Troy from the ‘Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne’, France, N. W. (Normandy, Rouen),
3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4376, f. 90r

The later Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne or Chronique de la Bouquechardière was written by the Norman knight Jean de Courcy just after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V.

Theseus and Hercules jousting against the two sisters of Queen Antiope, from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), before 1291, Add MS 15268, f. 103r

The British Library has nine out of a total of almost forty surviving manuscripts of the different versions of  the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César. The work was first compiled and adapted from Latin into French in the early thirteenth century. One of the earliest copies in our collections was made in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, perhaps for Henry II de Lusignan as a gift for his coronation in 1286. Medieval knights far from home in the Holy Land must have identified with these ancient heroes and studied the accounts of their military campaigns. This glorious image on a gold background shows Theseus and Hercules jousting against women. Yes, two of our most illustrious ancient heroes took on Queen Antiope and the Amazon women in order to seize the royal girdle. They arrived with nine warships and captured two of Antiope’s sisters, Melanippe and Hippolyte, along with the girdle.

Detail of a column miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy, with the rubric 'Ci commance la vraie hystoire de troies' from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France (Paris), 1340-1350, Add MS 12029, f. 22v

A version of the text omitting Genesis and beginning with the history of King Ninus and Queen Semiramis of Persia was copied in Paris about 50 years later, and contains 46 framed miniatures by four different artists. This image is at the beginning of the Troy legend, and shows the Greeks attacking Troy for the first time.

Add MSS 15268 and Add MS 12029 have recently been catalogued and are now online with a selection of the images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Detail of a four-part miniature of (1) the death of Hector, (2) Achilles and Polyxena on Hector's grave, (3) Achilles with Hecuba in the temple, and (4) the death of Achilles, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France, N., 1250-1275, Add MS 19669, f. 84r

The earliest French Histoire Ancienne manuscript in our collections – Add MS 19669 – was made in Northern France in the mid-thirteenth century. It contains a series of miniatures in three or four parts, including this one of the deaths of Hector and Achilles. In the first scene (top left), Hector, the Trojan prince, is killed by the Greek hero Achilles as he bends to retrieve a jewelled helmet from a fallen knight; in the second (bottom left), Achilles visits Hector's grave, catches sight of Hector’s sister, Polyxena, and falls in love; in the third (top right), Hecuba tricks Achilles into coming to the Trojan temple to marry Polyxena; finally (bottom right), he is killed by Paris, Hector’s brother.

Miniature of the Sack of Troy, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 169r

Different scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey are portrayed in a series of tinted drawings and illuminations in a copy of a later version of the text of the Histoire ancienneRoyal MS 20 D I – produced by Italian artists for the French monarchs of the house of Anjou, who ruled Naples from 1266-1435. The Trojan Horse is shown in this extravagant full-page depiction of the sack of Troy, reminiscent of a large wall-painting. The 297 images are all available online in Digitised Manuscripts.

Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of Ulysses in Crete, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f.181v

Here, Ulysses is shown arriving in Crete on his homeward journey from Troy, as related in the accompanying text, though this is not in the original version of the Odyssey.

Do you have any favourite scenes from these manuscripts?  Let us know on Twitter @BLMedieval!

- Chantry Westwell

03 February 2015

The Magna Carta Unification

Today, for the first time in history, the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts have been brought together. This is a truly historic occasion: not once in 800 years have these documents been in one place, because they were written over a period of weeks in June and July 1215, and dispatched to their medieval homes as soon as they were written.


You may recall that, last October, we offered 1,215 members of the public the opportunity to win a ticket to see these manuscripts side-by-side, in an event sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm. The response was overwhelming -- we received more than 43,000 entries, from countries as far afield as Algeria, Bolivia, The Gambia, Hong Kong and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral would like to thank everyone who entered this public ballot for showing such interest in our event, and for helping us to start this year of global commemorations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Congratulations if you were one of the lucky winners -- we regret that entry to this event is limited to those with tickets only.

For those of you who were unsuccessful in the ballot, or were unable to come to London, here is a sneak preview of the four manuscripts in question. After the temporary unification event at the British Library, Salisbury's Magna Carta will return to its home for the exhibition Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice, Power of Words (from 6 March 2015); Lincoln's Magna Carta will go on display in the new David P. J. Ross Lincoln Castle Vault in the exhibition Magna Carta: Power, Justice and Accountability (from 1 April 2015); and the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts will be exhibited in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March-1 September 2015). We'd be delighted to see you at one or more of these exhibitions, in what promises to be a truly memorable year for everyone interested in Magna Carta and its pivotal place in establishing the rule of law.

Salisbury Magna Carta

The Salisbury Cathedral 1215 Magna Carta (image courtesy of Salisbury Cathedral)

Lincoln Magna Carta

The Lincoln Cathedral 1215 Magna Carta (image courtesy of Lincoln Cathedral)

BL London Magna Carta

One of the British Library's 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century

BL Canterbury Magna Carta

The British Library's other 1215 Magna Carta manuscript, kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages but damaged by fire in the 18th century