Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

17 posts from April 2015

14 April 2015

Ten Things To Know About Medieval Monsters

In their new picture book published by the British Library, Medieval Monsters, medieval historian Damien Kempf and art historian Maria L. Gilbert explore the fantastic, grotesque and exuberant world of monsters in the Middle Ages through the images found in illuminated manuscripts, from dragons and demons to Yoda and hybrid creatures. The book has already attracted rave reviews: don't forget that you can buy it from the British Library online shop (£10, ISBN 9780712357906).

In this guest post, Damien and Maria describe ten things you should know about medieval monsters in a whimsical poem à la Edward Lear and Dr. Seuss.

With medieval manuscripts one does find

there lurks a particularly special kind

of creature, lurking in the margin,

religious instruction or pure diversion?

Frightening, charming, sometimes alarming;

monsters are Sin and Damnation,

Seduction, Temptation, Allure, Delectation.

We enter their world, they hold us in thrall

let’s take a look, the Middle Ages call.


1. They may be shy


The big-eared Panotii were a monstrous race;

located on the peripheries—an imaginary place.

Their ears were so large they could serve as blankets

or wings to fly away when overcome with shyness.

* * *

2. They may create a wonderful first impression but beware!


Bird-woman mermaid, alluring siren at sea,

sings so enchantingly there’s no time to plea.

You’re entranced, you’re drawn in. That voice! Those tail swishes!

Next you’re asleep and then: food for the fishes.

* * *

3. They may crave love and tenderness


A horse with a long horn, most fierce and shrewd,

the all powerful unicorn easily eludes

an experienced hunter, but tame it becomes

at the touch of a virgin and completely succumbs.

* * *

4. They may be multi-headed

Apocalypse beast

An end days vision: six heads and ten horns

with multiple crowns, his head is adorned.

Mouth like a lion and feet like a bear

the Beast of the Apocalypse gives quite a scare.

* * *

5. They may be very tempting


Living in the desert, the hermit saint Anthony

besieged by hallucinations seemingly continually.

Facing trial after trial of temptation,

this Christian ascetic retained his concentration.

* * *

6. They may bite off more than they can chew


Margaret of Antioch, thrown into prison

by the prefect Olibrius for being a Christian.

The devil as a dragon visited her there,

swallowed her whole but having said a prayer

she burst out unharmed, a dragon slayer.

* * *

7. They may take your soul on your deathbed if you behave badly


At death, both an angel and devil are waiting.

Will your soul go to hell or is it worth saving?

It depends on the deeds you performed in life.

whether you repented or caused bitter strife.

* * *

8. They may be quite irksome

St John and demon

On Patmos, John (the Evangelist probably)

wrote revelations, an apocalyptic prophecy.

A mischievous demon tried to spoil the plot

by sneakily stealing John’s ink pot.

* * *

9. They may be flashy

Michael and demon

Warrior angel Michael, celestial army head

smote the devil down but didn’t strike him dead.

A spectacular battle, some would say,

as theatrical & vibrant as lucha libre.

* * *

10. They may look like Hollywood movie stars


Sendak, Burton, Lucas, and Seuss

Their films: medieval monster reuse!

Handsome, playful, quirky, and whimsical

Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.


Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

FEATURED: Panotti (British Library Add MS 62925, f. 88v, detail); Siren (Ms. Ludwig XV 3, f. 78, detail, J. Paul Getty Museum); Unicorn (BL Stowe 17, f. 90v, detail); Beast of the Apocalypse (BL Add. 54180, f. 14v, detail); Anthony's demon (Ms. Ludwig XI 8, f. 6v, detail, Getty Museum); Margaret's dragon (Ms. 37, f. 49v, detail, Getty Museum); Soul takers (Ms. 57, f. 194, detail, Getty Museum); John's demon (Ms. Ludwig IX 6, f.13, detail, Getty Museum); Michael and the Devil (BL Add 18851, f. 464, detail); Figure in monk's robes ('Yoda') (Royal 10 E IV, f. 30, detail).

12 April 2015

Guess the Manuscript With A Difference

Today we're playing Guess the Manuscript with a difference. Normally you can find the answer on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, but that won't be any help this time round. Instead, the manuscript below is found in our Magna Carta exhibition ... but which item is it? A lead will be found on our dedicated Magna Carta website, produced by our Learning team, but just to be extra awkward we're not going to include the link here.




We'll give you the answer soon. Go on, it shouldn't be too difficult. Answers as usual can be submitted on the comments field below or on Twitter to @BLMedieval.

Update (13 April): And the answer is ... well, it wasn't that hard, the Nightmares of Henry I, on loan to the British Library from Corpus Christi College, Oxford. But be warned, the next one will be really devious.

The Nightmares of Henry I, by John of worcester (Worcester Cathedral Priory, 12th century): Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, p. 382W


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is open at the British Library until 1 September 2015

"The show is a feast for anyone with an interest in medieval history or how the freedoms we cherish were devised and defended" (The Daily Telegraph)

"Magna Carta, it turns out, still packs a mighty emotional punch" (The Guardian)

"Four years in the making, this exhibition is a huge success, encompassing 1,000 years of political and cultural history with a surprising and impressive array of items" (History Today)

10 April 2015

Pictures At An Exhibition

If you've been down to our Magna Carta exhibition, you may have realised that it's not just a show about books and documents. Among the exhibits are no fewer than 20 prints and drawings and 8 paintings, all of which help to set Magna Carta in its historical context. Mounting an exhibition of this magnitude has been no mean feat, and we're hugely indebted to the various institutions who have kindly loaned some of their key items to the British Library, namely the British Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the National Portrait Gallery; HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor; the Palace of Westminster; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Musée Carnavalet, Paris.


Portrait of King John by an unknown artist (c. 1620) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The National Portrait Gallery, London)

Every picture tells a story. Below are ten of the more intriguing ones, all of them featured in our Magna Carta exhibition.

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The Death of Arthur from Bowyer’s History of England (1793) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from a private lender, reproduced here by courtesy of The British Museum, London)

This sinister engraving of the murder of Prince Arthur was one of the illustrations commissioned by Robert Bowyer (d. 1834) for a new edition of David Hume’s The History of England. The original painting by William Hamilton (d. 1801) was exhibited in London in 1793, shortly after the guillotining of King Louis XVI of France (1754-93), and it shows King John's nephew, Prince Arthur, begging for his life. The murderer is unidentified, but the catalogue accompanying the 1793 exhibition names him as King John. If you look closely you can see a bat (the harbinger of doom) hovering above the murderer’s dagger.

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King John Delivering Magna Carta to the Barons (1783) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

There is a sad story behind this coloured print. It reproduces a painting by John Hamilton Mortimer (d. 1779), exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1776, imagining the scene of the granting of Magna Carta at Runnymede. The engraving from which the print was produced was begun by William Wynne Ryland in 1783. Later that year, however, Ryland was convicted of handling forged bills, and he was hanged at Tyburn in London. His widow, Mary, raised a subscription for this print to be published in her husband’s memory.

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Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John, by Charles Buchel (1900) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

We particularly like this brooding portrait of the Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree (d. 1917), loaned to our exhibition by the V&A. Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900, and his performance was captured in the earliest record of Shakespeare on film (also in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy). The artist, Charles Buchel (d. 1950), revealed that Tree was a ‘a bad sitter … because he was impatient and seemed to want to do the work himself!’ Part-way through the sitting, Tree jumped up and proposed acting the part of King John as he was being painted, and even enlisting the help of other members of the cast to put on the play -- an offer which the artist declined!


The Contrast, 1793: British Liberty, French Liberty, Which is best? (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This colourful print by Thomas Rowlandson (d. 1827) was made in London at the time of the French Revolution, and contrasts the virtues of ‘British Liberty’ with the dangers of Jacobin ‘French Liberty’. The roundel on the left depicts Britannia holding ‘Magna Charta’ and the scales of Justice, with the noble lion of England reposing peacefully at her feet. On the right, a gruesome French Medusa, carrying a trident impaled with hearts and a severed head, tramples a decapitated corpse underfoot, with a man hanging from a lamp-post in the background. The legend equates British liberty with ‘justice’, ‘prosperity’ and ‘happiness’, while French liberty led to ‘misery’, ‘injustice’, ‘ruin’ and (hmmm) 'equality.

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Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier, Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (c. 1789) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

Our favourite item in the exhibition changes day by day. But this painting is always one of the leading candidates. On 26 August 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly issued the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) which defined individual and collective rights at the time of the French Revolution. The Déclaration echoed Magna Carta in certain key statements, such as by subordinating the monarch to the rule of law, by maintaining that, ‘Nul homme ne peut etre accusé, arreté ni detenu que dans les cas déterminés par la loi’ (No person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in those cases established by the law), and by ensuring that taxation could only be raised by common consent. This allegorical painting by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (d. 1826) is remarkable for its incorporation of a printed text of the Déclaration, pasted onto the canvas.

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Design for a column with a statue of William III intended to be erected at Runnymede (1788?) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This has to be one of the strangest stories relating to Runnymede. In 1788 the followers of the statesman, Charles James Fox (d. 1806), proposed that a column dedicated to the Glorious Revolution (1689) should be constructed at Runnymede. The scheme never came to fruition, not least because the column in question would doubtless have sunk into the floodplain of the River Thames. This plan by William Thomas is its only material legacy. But Fox's opponents used the opportunity to lambast him for the proposal, as in this print produced by William Dent. Here a fox is shown hanging from a gibbet, excreting ‘Runny Mead’ from its backside. Justice, Britannia and Liberty rejoice underneath the gibbet, chanting, ‘Let’s joyful Dance and merry Sing … Huzza! … for Ch[ar]l[e]y is quite the thing’.

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Etching of a fox hanging from a gibbet and excreting ‘Runny Mead’, by William Dent (London, 1789) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

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Print of Arthur Beardmore teaching Magna Carta to his son (1765) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor)

This print, on loan to our exhibition from the Royal Collection, refers to one of the more curious uses of Magna Carta in the 18th century. In 1762 the lawyer and journalist, Arthur Beardmore (d. 1771), was arrested for publishing a seditious libel against Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (d. 1772), the mother of King George III (1760–1820). Beardmore sued the government for unlawful arrest, winning the case in 1765, and to commemorate the ruling this print was produced, portraying Beardmore at the moment of his arrest, ‘teaching his Son Magna Charta’.

Now look at this anonymous etching below. It shows Dick Swift teaching his son the Ten Commandments, and is a clear parody of the Beardmore print. Dick Swift was a convicted criminal, transported for handling stolen goods and re-arrested in 1765 after he returned to England. Striking a pose identical to Beardmore, Swift shows his son the 8th Commandment, torn so as to read ‘Thou Shalt Steal’. A noose hangs ominously over the head of the son, who, abiding by this instruction, picks his father’s pocket. And in case the parallel isn't clear, the print of Beardmore is nailed to the back wall!

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Print of Dick Swift Thieftaker of the City of London Teaching his Son the Commandments (1765) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor)

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Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons (1842) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This print, on loan to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition from the British Museum, shows the presentation of the largest Chartist petition to Parliament in 1842. Written on paper some 6 miles (10 km) long, the Great National Petition weighed over 48 stone (more than 300 kg). As the print states, the petition contained the signatures of 3,317,702 people, one-third of the adult population of Great Britain. The central view of the print shows the great Chartist procession that accompanied the petition along Whitehall to Parliament, and to the left is a depiction of the radical Member of Parliament, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (d. 1861), presenting the petition in the House of Commons. The Chartists consciously echoed Magna Carta in the choice of their name, since they agitated for the extension of voting rights and other Parliamentary reforms.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015. The items featured in this post can also be viewed on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

Julian Harrison, curator of Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

08 April 2015

The Trial of Queen Caroline

Today we continue our series of blogposts featuring items in our major current exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Don't forget that the exhibition is open in London until 1 September 2015, and that you can read about the exhibits in the accompanying catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website ...

Caroline of Brunswick

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale (image courtesy of City of London Corporation)

On 8 April 1795, in the Chapel Royal, St James’s, George, Prince of Wales, the future King George IV (reigned 1820–30), married his cousin, the German Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. It was not to be a happy union. When the marriage broke down very publicly in 1820 it scandalised the nation. During what became known as the ‘Trial of Queen Caroline’, supporters of the jilted Queen used Magna Carta to challenge what they regarded as a hypocritical and corrupt political establishment.

From the outset the marriage was never going to be a success. Prince George was already married to Maria Fitzherbert — though as she was a Catholic it did not legally count — and he was also having an affair with Frances Villiers, Lady Jersey. Indeed, George only consented to marrying Caroline because his father, King George III, agreed to pay off all of the Prince’s considerable debts if he did. Yet George remained so uninterested in matrimony that, when he was asked who he might like to marry, he reportedly claimed it did not matter as ‘one damned German frau is as good as another’. He should have paid more attention. Princess Caroline — who was chosen for him by his father — was reportedly a woman of high spirits, loose conduct, indecent language and poor hygiene. When Prince George first met her he was so dismayed that he turned aside and asked for brandy, and on the morning of their wedding he was so inebriated that he had to be physically supported throughout the ceremony. Unsurprisingly, within a year the royal couple were living separately, althought Caroline had achieved some success as a high society figure. She resided in Blackheath, London, and regularly made extravagant tours around the Mediterranean where she travelled with a large entourage, her favourite being her valet Bartolomeo Bergami — a well built, tall, handsome Italian.

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Queen Caroline, Britain’s Best Hope. England’s Sheet Anchor (1820), on loan to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition by kind permission of the Palace of Westminster

As soon as George IV became king in 1820, Caroline immediately returned to England to claim her place as Queen of England. Outraged, and seeking a divorce, George pressured Parliament to prepare a bill to strip Caroline of her title and end the marriage by Act of Parliament. A divorce through the ecclesiastical courts was difficult for the King given his own embarrassingly scandalous love life, and the bill in Parliament was considered the most expedient mode of attaining a divorce. The passage of the bill through Parliament became a spectacular cause celebre. The queen attended Westminster on a daily basis to hear the MPs debate her conduct (particularly with the Italian Bergami) in a process that emerged as something akin to a trial. The ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline became, as the government feared, a cause which radical parliamentary reformers exploited, as yet one more example of a corrupt political establishment supporting its own interests and in need of change. Caroline became the focus of many demonstrations and the topic for public prints in which she was represented as a wronged woman and an icon of the oppressed. Her lost rights became associated with the people’s lost rights, and she was often depicted as a heroine alongside that great symbol of English liberty, Magna Carta.

Henry Hone, The Queen and Magna Charta (London, 1820) (London, British Library, G.18982(25), p. 24), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

Since at least the English Civil Wars Magna Carta had been used as an important symbol of ancient English liberty, and in their public defence of Queen Caroline the radicals invoked the Great Charter with equal zeal. In the print Queen Caroline. Britain’s Best Hope!!, generously loaned by the Houses of Parliament for our exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, Caroline leans, in a pose reminiscent of Britannia, against an anchor representing the constitution composed of ‘Magna Charta, The People,’ and the ‘Bill of Rights’. United, they represent ‘Britain’s best hope’ of stability and strength in the face of corrupt government.

This theme was even more emphatically pursued in William Hone’s satirical poem The Queen and Magna Charta (1820). Hone was a radical writer, publisher and occasional bankrupt of some renown, and the fact that this book went through at least five editions in 1820 is testament to how it captured the mood of the British public during the ‘trial’. Based on another well-known satirical poem by Hone, The House that Jack Built (which again invoked Magna Carta), this poem compared:


Of Runnymede Field,

Who once made a Tyrant’s ambition to yield,

By guarding OLD ENGLAND

With Liberty’s Shield,

And demanding THE THING


with their ‘PUNY DESCENDANTS’ who now sat in judgment upon the Queen from the comfort of their seats in Parliament. Encouraging his readership to rise up against the establishment, Hone invoked Magna Carta throughout the poem as:




Round which



will join’

Henry Hone, The Queen and Magna Charta (London, 1820) (London, British Library, G.18982(25), p. 25)

Such powerful propaganda, stressing the rights of British subjects as outlined in Magna Carta, had a significant effect on public opinion and altered the fate of Queen Caroline as the bill passed through Parliament. With memories of the French Revolution still vivid in the minds of many government ministers, and concerned that public outrage at the trial might lead to insurrection, Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, announced that the bill would be dropped, leading to country-wide celebrations on a large scale.

Caroline’s victory was short lived. Following the ‘trial’ Caroline accepted the government’s offer of an allowance of £50,000 a year if she went to live quietly abroad, but within a year she had died following a short illness. Her funeral cortège through London attracted a large crowd, who rioted when the government attempted to re-route the procession through the quieter backstreets of London. Eventually reaching Harwich, her remains were returned by boat to Germany where — in accordance with her wishes — she was buried by her father at their ancestral home in Brunswick.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library, London, until 1 September 2015. Entry costs £12, under 18s enter free and other concessions are available.

Alex Lock

07 April 2015

A Giant from Our Collections: The Stavelot Bible


Historiated initial 'I' ('In principio'), at the beginning of Genesis, fully painted and gilded, with roundels containing scenes relating to Genesis and Christ, from the Stavelot Bible, Netherlands, S. (Stavelot), 1094-1097, Add MS 28106, f 6r.

Readers of our blog will know that our manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary from Books of Hours so tiny that they can fit in the palm of one’s hand, to enormous tomes that are almost impossible for one person to lift. Each of the two volumes of the Stavelot Bible exceeds the aircraft carry-on limit, with dimensions of 58 x 39cm, and weighing 40 lb, and the whole work takes four people to carry, two for each volume. Fortunately for scholars, bodybuilding is no longer a requirement to look at this manuscript as it has now been fully digitised and is available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.


Canon tables, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 139v

The writing, decoration and binding of this monumental Bible, made for the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, near Liège, southern Netherlands, took four years to complete, and was finished in 1097.

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Illuminated initial at the beginning of the Book of Samuel, showing the Amakelite bearing the crown of the dead Saul into David’s camp (below), then presenting Saul’s insignia to David (middle) and the executioner holding up the severed head of the Amakelite over his twisted body (above), from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 109r

Two monks involved in its production, Godderan and Ernesto, are identified in an inscription, although their roles are not specified: Godderan may have been the sole scribe, and Ernesto one of the artists. Its great size and legibility of script indicates that it would have been the principal Bible of the abbey, possibly used for daily services or for display on the high altar.

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‘ET’ at the beginning of the Book of Joshua, with (above) the hand of God coming down to Joshua, shown from the back, in a pose characteristic of the Stavelot artist, and (below) Joshua addressing three followers, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 75v

This image, which appears before the beginning of the New Testament, is one of the great monuments of early Romanesque art. It shows Christ in Majesty, holding a book and a Greek cross, with the globe of the earth under his feet, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

Christ in Majesty, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 136r

The two volumes of the Stavelot Bible contain 45 historiated initials in all.  Unfortunately in some places initials have been cut out and blank spaces remain.

Text page with missing image from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28106, f 144v

Not all initials are historiated. In this masterful composition from the beginning of the Liber Generationis in Matthew’s Gospel, the shape follows the outlines of the letter ‘L’ and animal and human forms struggle to escape from the swirling vines. 

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Decorated initial ‘L’(iber) at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, from the Stavelot Bible, Add MS 28107, f 142v

 - Chantry Westwell

05 April 2015

The Divine Comedy Now Online

For those who enjoyed our blogposts on Dante’s Divine Comedy last year, the manuscript containing the images, Egerton MS 943, has now been published on Digitised Manuscripts. Here are a few of our favourite miniatures from this gorgeous manuscript, produced in northern Italy in the first half of the 14th century for a patron whose identity is unknown.

Inferno: In this part Dante is guided through Hell by Virgil and sees the torments of the Damned.


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Dante and Virgil arrive at the gates of hell. Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 6v


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Dante and Virgil watch as a sinner is attacked by a Dragon. Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 45r


Purgatorio: Virgil and Dante climb out of Hell into Purgatory, where they meet the souls doing penance and climb the seven terraces representing the seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth.


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A boat bringing the souls over the water to Purgatory, escorted by an angel. Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 65r


Dante and Virgil watch the clouds of smoke of the wrathful souls; they pass through the dark clouds. Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 91r

Paradiso: In the third and final part, Dante is guided through Paradise by his lady love, Beatrice, who instructs him on the virtues of the seven celestial spheres and finally they enter the presence of the Divine.


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Beatrice explaining the order of the universe to Dante.Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 130r
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Dante and Beatrice look up at the sources of pure light in heaven. Divina Commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, London, British Library, Egerton MS 943, f 179v

- Chantry Westwell

03 April 2015

Magna Carta: The Reviews Are In!

We've been delighted by the reviews that we have received for our Magna Carta exhibition, on show at the British Library until 1 September 2015. We're printing a selection of the best comments below ... don't forget that the exhibition is open for the whole Easter weekend and is free for under 18s (with a free children's audioguide, sponsored by the Magna Carta 800th Committee). You can also see the vast majority of the exhibits on our dedicated Magna Carta website, together with specially commissioned essays, and animations narrated by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.

The Guardian ('Magna Carta Exhibition is an 800-Year-Lesson in People Power') made us exhibition of the week, at the same time that the Alexander McQueen retrospective opened at the V&A, and picked out the medieval manuscript illustrating the nightmares of Henry I ('a surreal masterpiece of medieval art') as one of the show's highlights: 'Somehow these manuscripts, charters, seals, declarations and statutes are as moving as any art. The Magna Carta, it turns out, still packs a mighty emotional punch.'

The Nightmares of Henry I (courtesy of Corpus Christi College, Oxford)

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph awarded us 5 stars, describing the exhibition as 'rich and authoritative ... This exhibition on Magna Carta deciphers the 800-year-old document with exceptional clarity.'

The Independent ('A Rallying Cry for Freedom That's Still Making History') gave us 4 stars, and wrote, 'To catch fire these dry medieval texts need contexts, which the show smartly supplies'.

Community Channel ('More Than Just a Museum Piece') says that 'what really renders the exhibition such a must-see event is the sense of narrative that is woven by these uniquely fascinating artefacts when viewed together ... what makes this exhibition great is that it's an exemplar of what makes London and its fantastic cultural institutions the envy of the world.'

Sir William Blackstone, resting his hand on his The Great Charter and The Charter of the Forest (courtesy of The Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Professor Nigel Saul, writing in The Times Higher Education Supplement ('How an Artefact Became an Idea': a subscription is required to view the original content), anticipated the problem of presenting dry, unattractive documents to a general audience: 'The curators have tried to do this by emphasizing the range of Magna Carta's appeal and the variety of its meaning to audiences ... The continuing relevance of the themes addressed in the exhibition could hardly be made any clearer. The curators are to be congratulated on organizing an exhibition which both captures the power of the Charter over the centuries and draws attention to its capacity to inspire myth.'

The Culture Trip ('Doing Magna Carta Justice at The British Liberty') began its review by stating, 'If you start going now, you can fit in multiple visits before its closure, assuredly learning more and only increasing your enjoyment every time. This exhibit is vast, it is thorough, and is glorious.'

John Lilburne, who was acquitted of committing high treason in 1649 (from a book held by the British Library)

Kate Wiles in History Today wrote, 'Four years in the making, this exhibition is a huge success, encompassing 1,000 years of political and cultural history with a surprising and impressive array of items. It would be easy, having seen it, to spend days revisiting each piece to view it in a new light and revisiting assumptions about Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in English history, which might not be what we thought it was.'

John Sabapathy of University College London, writing for Reviews in History, chose as the funniest moment in the exhibition a recent cartoon by Stephen Collins, and concluded that, 'The curators, contributors and lenders to this excellent exhibition and catalogue have provided a very great deal of nutritious food for thought.'

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A cartoon by Stephen Collins, first published in The Guardian, 28 June 2014

The Economist ('A Manuscript for All Seasons') says that the exhibition 'rewards full-on wallowing. There are swords, axes, paintings, episcopal vestments, hunting horns, re-enactment costumes—even two of John’s molars and a fraction of his thumb bone that were removed from his tomb in 1797—but it is the manuscripts that hold rightful sway. Along with the English language, Magna Carta has a claim to be Britain’s greatest export. Historically minded visitors should make sure not to miss a superb opportunity to understand why.'

A word of warning: The Code of the Gentleman cautions that, 'Much as you would probably expect from the British Library, and as I have experienced in the past with their exhibitions, the vast majority of the artefacts consist of some kind of text, and so a large amount of reading is required to really appreciate or connect with any of the items on display.' But this is offset by 'short interview segments playing on television screens that provide a wonderfully concise summing-up of the themes and ideas explored in each section of the exhibition' and 'some beautiful ‘scene-setting’ artefacts on loan from other museums'.

Finally, according to the Socialist Worker ('The Magna Carta and the Struggle for Our Legal Rights'), 'you can probably give the first room with different versions of the charter a miss ... but from then on it's fascinating'. (Our researcher, Alex Lock, who worked on the post-medieval sections of the exhibition, is especially pleased with this.)

A writ for the publication of Magna Carta, 20 June 1215 (courtesy of Hereford Cathedral)

If you'd like to see Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, visit the exhibition homepage. A catalogue, edited by curators Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, is also available from the British Library shop.


02 April 2015

A Calendar Page for April 2015

To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for April, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

A pastoral scene greets us on the calendar page for April, with budding leaves on the trees heralding the onset of spring. Sheep and their lambs, a goat and two oxen are being shepherded out from half-timbered barns, to graze in the fields beyond. A cockerel, hens and their hatchlings scrabble about in farmyard, while in the background a woman stands churning milk for butter. The roundels depict the two main feast days for the month – for St George (on horseback, vanquishing a dragon with his lance) and for St Mark (seated at his desk and accompanied by his emblem, a winged lion). Taurus the Bull – the Zodiac sign for April – is standing at the head of page. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of animals being let out to graze,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r 

Detail of a roundel depicting St George and the dragon,
Add MS 35313, f. 3r

- James Freeman