Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from September 2015

29 September 2015

Erasmus Manuscript Saved for the Nation

We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired a unique manuscript containing the earliest known translation into English of any work by the great humanist scholar and reformer, Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536). This volume, which had been the subject of a temporary export bar, is also the only known manuscript of a contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s most popular work, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or ‘Handbook of the Christian soldier’.  


A contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani, newly-acquired by the British Library (Additional MS 89149, f. 1r)

Erasmus is perhaps best known today for his satire The Praise of Folly, which he wrote to amuse Thomas More (d. 1535), and for his translation of the New Testament from Greek; but the Enchiridion was Erasmus’s first summing up of the guiding principles of his religious life, setting out his vision of a purified, Christ-centred faith based on essential points of doctrine. As a compendium of humanistic piety, it endorsed the lay vocation to holiness in the Christian life. Erasmus’s revolutionary concept, given its first and definitive expression in the Enchiridion, was his elevation of the educated laity as the potential source of new life in a Church and society fallen into decay. The Enchiridion evoked widespread interest throughout Europe and became one of the most influential devotional texts of the early 16th century. Between 1501, when Erasmus wrote the Enchiridion, and 1536 when he died, the original Latin text appeared in more than 50 printed editions. Between 1533 and 1545 there were 13 editions in English, the first being published by Wynkyn de Worde for John Bydell in London. The large number of English printed editions of the Enchiridion demonstrates the importance of its influence in pre-Reformation England.    

Dated 1523, the manuscript was written ten years before the English translation of the Enchiridion first appeared in print in 1533. Two contemporary accounts testify that the religious reformer William Tyndale (d. 1536) translated the Enchiridion into English in 1522 or 1523. To date, there has been no secure evidence that Tyndale’s translation survived but its relationship to the text of the English translation, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1533, has long been a matter of scholarly debate. The proximity of the date of the Northumberland manuscript to Tyndale’s putative Enchiridion now tantalisingly suggests a potential identification with his ‘lost’ translation. 


Colophon: 'translated oute of latten into englisshe in the yere of our lord god mlvcxxiii [i.e. 1523]' (Additional MS 89149, f. 144v)

The manuscript has been in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick Castle since at least 1872 and its significance was only realised when it was put up for sale last summer. Initially sold to an overseas buyer, a temporary export bar was placed on the manuscript by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, on the grounds that it is of outstanding significance for the study of cultural movements towards the Reformation in England, the earliest known translation of Erasmus into English, and of significance for the study of scholastic links between Erasmus and Tyndale. The acquisition of the Erasmus manuscript by the British Library has been made possible thanks to the generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Friends of the British Library, the Friends of the National Libraries, and an anonymous donor.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of the manuscript has been welcomed by Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Durham: ‘This manuscript, which seems very likely to be the work of William Tyndale, is one of the most significant new archival discoveries relating to the history of the English Bible and the English Reformation to have been made during my lifetime. Long given up for lost, this brings us closer to the work of a man who was not only one of the heroes of the Reformation but also the single most influential figure in the formation of the modern English language. It's a genuine national treasure, and the British Library is to be congratulated on a stellar new acquisition.’

Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library said, ‘I am thrilled that the British Library has secured this very significant manuscript for the national collection. As well as being available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the Library, the manuscript has been digitised and is now available to everyone in full online.’

Complete, free digital coverage of the manuscript (now Add MS 89149) is available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

- Andrea Clarke, Lead Curator, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts 

26 September 2015

How to Make the Most of Digitised Manuscripts

What is Digitised Manuscripts?

One of the British Library’s most valuable electronic resources is our ever-growing Digitised Manuscripts website. It features complete digital copies and descriptions of thousands of manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, including almost 2,000 items curated by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section.


Portrait of Mark at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, from the Arnstein Bible (Job to Revelation), North-West Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 166r

Some of the highlights from our collection are the Codex Alexandrinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Articles of the Barons, the Book of Margery Kempe,  the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.

Digitised Manuscripts allows you to access for free every single folio, flyleaf, and fragment of these magnificent manuscripts, any time day or night, anywhere in the world.

How do I find a manuscript?

If you know the manuscript you are looking for, enter the shelfmark in the ‘Manuscripts’ field of the search engine. You need to include ‘MS’ after the collection name. For example, enter ‘Cotton MS Nero C IV’ for the Winchester Psalter, or ‘Royal MS 19 C IV’ for Le Songe du vergier, attributed to Évrart de Trémaugon.

N.B. ‘Additional’ shelfmarks are abbreviated (without a full stop) to ‘Add MS [number]’.

If you do not know the shelfmark, enter the commonly used title of the manuscript or its main text in the ‘Keyword(s)’ field. If you search for ‘Beowulf’ you will find Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, the single witness of this famous piece of Anglo-Saxon literature. To find the Bedford Hours write ‘bedford+hours’, or for the 3 volumes of the Parc Abbey Bible, write ‘parc+abbey’ (if you do not add ‘+’, it will bring up every entry with either word). 

What other search options are available?

As well as providing complete coverage of some of the most important manuscripts in our collection, it is also possible to discover new items through the search engine. In addition to searching by shelfmark or keyword, you can also explore the collection by specifying content in the following fields:

Date range – restrict or expand the scope of your search by using the two slider controls. Limit your searches to a particular century or time period. For example, search for entries dated earlier than 600 AD, and discover amazing items such as this papyrus fragment with a drawing of a bear in the arena!

Title – enter any keywords to be matched against the item or text title. Entering ‘Apocalypse’ in this field will identify all of the items which include the Book of Revelations, such as the illuminated Abingdon Apocalypse.

Author/Scribe – enter any keywords to match against the names of the authors and scribes. A search of ‘Homer’ filters all of the items by this epic Ancient Greek author, including the 2nd century papyrus with the Bankes Homer.

Provenance/Acquisition – enter any keywords to match against the ownership field. You can search for the name of an individual or institution, or a specific geographical location. For example, the manuscripts made in ‘Bruges’ include this exceptional copy of the Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins.

Bibliography – enter any keywords to match against the bibliography field.

Papyrus_114_no frame

The Bankes Homer, 2nd century, Papyrus 114

Search Results

There are four options for viewing your search results: by manuscript, author, title, or date. The default option organises your results according to manuscript shelfmark. The author or title tabs display your findings alphabetically according to these two different fields. The date tab presents the items in chronological order, beginning with the earliest.

Once you have found your chosen manuscript(s), select the image or title on the search results page.

What information is included on the manuscript page?

Each entry begins with the date, title, and a description of both the text and the decoration. Below this you will find details of the language(s) in the manuscript, and its physical properties, such as the materials, dimensions, and type of binding. The next section traces the history of ownership, beginning with the geographical origin before moving on to the manuscript’s owners over the centuries and concluding with the date it entered the British Library’s holdings. At the end of every entry is a select bibliography.

How do I open the viewer?

To access the digital images you need to select the image of the manuscript which appears after the description of content. The Digitised Manuscripts viewer then opens in a new tab. You can also select ‘bindings’ to go directly to the front and back boards, and spine.   

The numbers used in the viewer reflect the modern foliation of the manuscript. Blank leaves are numbered according to the previous foliated leaf plus an asterisk (*), or if there are multiple blank leaves, the number of the previous foliated leaf is followed by a letter, beginning with ‘a’. Flyleaves are numbered with roman numerals. The binding is identified as ‘front’, ‘back’, ‘spine’, and ‘front-i’[nner] and ‘back-i’[nner].

What are the viewing options?

There are three different options for viewing each item. The default option is ‘Single’ page, which presents the individual images of the recto or verso pages of the manuscript. In the ‘View’ drop-down menu, you can also select ‘Open book’, which presents the opening of two adjacent pages. The third option is ‘Folio’, which allows you to view both the recto and verso sides of a given leaf.

The pages can be browsed using the arrows in the round circles at the top or by selecting a specific folio from the drop-down menu on the right.

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer offers a zoom facility. You can zoom in/out of a page using the scroll of your mouse or by using the magnifying glass with the ‘+’ or ‘-’ symbols.

  Eg 2019_f. 97 r and v

The ‘Folio’ viewing option allows you to compare the mirror-image borders on the recto and verso of a leaf from this petite Book of Hours, France (Paris), 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 97r and f. 97v 

Can I download images?

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer does not facilitate the download of images. Each image is formed of multiple tiles, which, whilst ensuring the excellent zoom facility, cannot be saved as a single file. The content in the Digitised Manuscripts viewer is intended for research and study purposes only. More information on the reuse of images can be found here:

If you are interested in purchasing a particular image, please direct your order to Imaging Services, or try Images Online, which has a large supply of images of individual pages readily available. 

How are manuscripts selected for digitisation?

The British Library prioritises the digitisation of our manuscripts, with the goal of providing users with access to the manuscripts in greatest demand as well as ensuring their preservation. This is a continuous process, which involves the selection of a number of key items each year.  

The majority of the manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts have been digitised as part of large-scale projects, funded by external donors, such as the Greek Digitisation Project, the Harley Science Project and Royal Illuminated Manuscripts. An overview of these projects can be found here.

  Royal MS 15 E VI_f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside king Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

What other online resources are available?

Explore Archives and Manuscripts is the British Library’s online manuscript catalogue. In addition to detailed descriptions of the items in our collection, the ‘Copies’ field highlights if the manuscript has been digitised. 

The British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contains images of over 2500 illuminated manuscripts, which are all in the public domain and available to download. Information on the reuse of images from the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is available here.

22 September 2015

The Destruction of Jerusalem

This is the second in a series of posts featuring manuscripts from Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum (until the 1970s the British Library was not a separate institution and the Department of Manuscripts formed part of the British Museum).* The first article, on the legends of Greek origin, touched on the Troy and Alexander romances and focused on the lesser-known Apollonius of Tyre.  

* H. L. D. Ward and J. A. Herbert, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1883-1910)

The next section in Ward’s catalogue, ANCIENT HISTORY, describes the manuscripts of Titus and Vespasian or the Destruction of Jerusalem, a tale that has its origins in both Roman and Biblical history. Ward tells us that an older version of the text exists in Latin, but the manuscripts he describes in our collections are in French and English.


Vespasian ill in bed, with two doctors attending him and Titus in the foreground, greeting his father; two courtiers are waiting to the side, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c 1465, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist, Additional MS 89066/1, f. 61v

The French chanson de geste tells of the Emperor Vespasian, struck down with leprosy, sending his seneschal Gaius to Jerusalem to find out if the great prophet, Jesus, can help him. Gaius returns with the news of Christ’s crucifixion, but brings Veronica who has the cloth imprinted with His features.  Vespasian is cured and he and his son Titus destroy Jerusalem to revenge the death of Christ. Pontius Pilate, who is held responsible, is sent to prison in France, at Vienne, where the earth opens and he is taken down into hell.

French manuscript

Titus and Vespasian is one of the texts in Additional MS 10289, a late-13th century volume of French verse from Mont Saint-Michel, previously featured in this blogpost. An impressive puzzle initial marks the beginning of the opening line. The chanson is divided into irregular sections or verses of between 16 and 24 lines, for which Ward uses the quaintly archaic French term ‘tirades’, each marked by a decorated initial in red or blue. In the second tirade, the 4th line sums up the attack on Jerusalem as, ‘Ainz est la veniance au fiz sainte marie’ ('such is the vengeance for the son of St Mary’).


Opening lines of ‘Titus and Vespasian’, France (Normandy), 1275-1300, Additional MS 10289, f. 82r

Having described Pilate’s torments and sticky end, the chanson ends with a moral for all:

Ce conte lescriture donc la reson est voire

Que si prist sa veniance li puissant rei de gloire

Grant poor puet avoir qui envers lui meserte

Quer contre sa puissance naura ia nus vitoire

('The purpose of this tale is clear: be very afraid if you go astray, because the powerful King of Glory will wreak vengeance and it is not possible to win against such a powerful adversary.')

The final lines of ‘Titus and Vespasian’, France (Normandy), 1275-1300, Additional MS 10289, f. 121r

English manuscripts

English versions of Titus and Vespasian in alliterative verse were popular in the 15th century, and Ward lists four manuscripts in our collections.

Cotton MS Caligula A II, ff. 111-125   

The full version of the English poem is in 7 parts, each called a ‘Passus’, and this collection of verse contains most of it, though part of Passus II, with the legend of Veronica and the holy shroud is missing. A marvellous detail that does not appear to have been in the French chanson is the strange affliction of wasps in his head that Vespasian suffers, in addition to leprosy. The poem describes the afflictions of Titus and his father Vespasian with some relish:

…. Tytus of Rome …

... had a maladye unmeke. In myddis his face

His lipppe lay on a lompe. Lyvored on his cheke

His fader Vaspasiane ferly bytydde

A byke of waspes bredde in his nose

Hyved up in his hedde he hadde hem of thoghte

And Vaspasiane is called by cause of his waspes


The angel Uriel appearing to Veronica in her sleep, bidding her to go to Spain to see Vespasian (in the background); in the foreground, Veronica showing Vespasian the Holy Veil, upon which Christ's face is imprinted, and he is cured instantaneously, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c 1465, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist, Additional MS 89066/1, f. 111r

The English version largely follows the French chanson, apart from an account of Nathan the seafarer ‘out of surry’ (from Syria), who is shipwrecked in Rome and tells Titus of the existence of Jesus Christ. (According to Ward, this episode was translated from the original Latin work into the Anglo Saxon legend of St Veronica and entered the English tradition from there.)


Page from ‘The Sege of Ierusalem’ containing the episode of Nathan and Titus,  England, 2nd half of the 15th century, Cotton MS Caligula A II, f. 111v

The aptly-named Cotton MS Vespasian E XVI, ff. 70r-75v

This compilation of historical and scientific texts, bound with an unrelated cartulary from Lincoln Cathedral, includes lines from Passus VI and VII of  the ‘Destructio Jerusalem per Vaspasianum et Titum’, as it is described in the colophon. It begins with Vespasian besieging Jerusalem. Messengers arrive from Rome to tell him that he has been elected emperor. The end describes how Titus and his army, having destroyed Jerusalem and condemned Pilate to ‘pyne for evere’ in prison, ‘Wentenn singyng away’ with the treasure they had won, satisfied that they had done the Lord’s work !


Vespasian is made Emperor and falls ill in Rome in this passage from the ‘Destructio Jerusalem’,  England, mid-15th century, Cotton MS Vespasian E XVI, f. 71r

Add MS 31042, ff. 50r-66

This manuscript also has a Lincoln connection as it is in a collection of English poems compiled by Robert Thornton, the scribe of the ‘Thornton Romances’ in Lincoln Cathedral Library. It is in the Appendix of Ward’s Catalogue, volume 1 as it was acquired by the British Museum just as he was compiling the work. He traces the ‘absurd story of the wasps in the nose of Vespasian’ to a Rabbinical source whereby Titus, when drinking wine after destroying Jerusalem, was attacked by a fly that flew up his nose and grew as large as a pigeon! The initial ‘I’ at the beginning of the text is perhaps a representation of the two afflicted emperors, with a creature emerging from their heads.


Initial ‘I’(n Tyberius tyme) with a monster head on top and two human heads in profile at the beginning of the first line of the poem, with the title ‘The Segge of Jerusalem / Of Tytus and Vespasian’, England, N. ( Lincoln), c. 1450, Additional MS 31042, f. 50r

Add MS 10036, ff. 2-61v

This version of the poem begins a collection of devotional texts from the early 15th century in a Warwickshire dialect. In this version, Pilate is shut up in a ‘barel of stele’ and sent to ‘Viene’, only to be carried off by devils. The authority for the story is given at the end, being ‘Josephus, þe good clerke [who] … sawe þe vengeaunce smyte’ and the author assures us that the protagonists ‘mede hevene ryche blis’.

Ward does not list Harley 4733, another miscellany of English verse. Two other English manuscripts, Additional MSS 36523 and 36983 were acquired after Ward’s Catalogue was published.

A new French manuscript

In 2014 the British Library acquired a set of volumes of a related theatrical text, Eustache Marcadé, Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist, the gorgeous Additional MS 89066/1 and Additional MS 89066/2, already the subject of our blogposts Magical Mystery Play and Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library.

A final scene from the Marcadé manuscripts:


Pilate is attacked by soldiers,  Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c 1465, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist, Additional MS 89066/1, f. 128v 


Update 25 September

Lucy Freeman Sandler, Emerita Professor of Art History at New York University, whom we are delighted to count among the readers of our blog, has suggested that we include the following images of the Siege of Jerusalem with captions in Anglo-Norman French, from the 14th-century ‘Neville of Hornby Book of Hours’ (Egerton MS 2781).


Miniature of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, with archers shooting arrows at people on the ramparts, England, S. E. (London?) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, the Neville of Hornby Book of Hours’, Egerton MS 2781, f. 190r


Miniature of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, with an infant speared, and men encircled by a rope, England, S. E. (London?) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, the Neville of Hornby Book of Hours’, Egerton MS 2781, f. 190v

Thank you, Lucy, for your input.

Chantry Westwell


16 September 2015

Caption Competition 3

Thank you to everyone who entered our last caption competition, the image of the medieval water clock from Additional MS 18719. There were some really great one-liners but our favourite caption (no prizes, unfortunately!) goes to M. Mitchell Marmel for the following:

"Sorry, but if you want a double-caff grande latte espresso, this is how it's done."

Our next image is from a Parisian book of hours (Egerton MS 2019), recently published on our Digitised Manuscripts website and featured in the blogpost Martyrdom in Action. We look forward to seeing your creative suggestions for this one. Please add a comment at the end of this post or submit your ideas via Twitter to @BLMedieval.


Detail of a roundel showing a man and a woman on a horse: France, Central (Paris), c. 1440 - c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r


Update (22 September)

Thank you to everyone for their brilliant suggestions. We have a 'winner' (remember, no prizes), but first, here are some of the entries via Twitter, and you can see submissions as comments to the blogpost below:

@Lezmondo "Quick, look away, it's that bird again!"

@classicalgeek "There's a rest stop a couple of miles ahead. I'm sure they have it."

@MythicalStig "And we can use the bird to tweet our adventures to all of our followers"

‏@ScroogeDLWP2015 "You know, dear, we probably could afford a second horse..?"

@GriffHistorical "Look, if you think you can drive better..."

@SlCathy "We'll never get the stream-lining sorted with you wearing that ridiculous head-gear!"

‏@LitteraCarolina  "Now, the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow..."

@TtamAlubic "ACTUALLY, it's about ethics in bear-baiting journalism"

‏@susanhillwriter  "What do you mean, you feel sick?"

@julianaeleanore  "Honey, I know you like to pamper him, but can your bird just fly a little bit of the way? My arm is killing me."

But our favourite, posted by Crayfish, is this:

"I told you that stupid twig's no good for travel sickness"

14 September 2015

Martyrdom in Action

One of the newest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website is Egerton MS 2019, a petite Parisian Book of Hours made in the mid-fifteenth century. Despite its small size (it measures less than 20 centimetres tall and only 14 centimetres wide), this book is packed with an ambitious level of detail.


St John the Baptist is beheaded at the door of a prison while a woman (?Salome) is given a plate, from a Book of Hours, Use of Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 208r

The majority of the illustration has been attributed to the Master of the Munich Golden Legend (fl. c. 1420-1460), who was named after his work in a manuscript now in Munich containing a French translation of the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. gall. 3). He also collaborated with the Bedford Master on one of our most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Bedford Hours. His most intricate work in Egerton MS 2019 is found in the roundels that accompany the calendar (ff. 1r-12r) and the stamp-sized scenes that illustrate the life of Job (ff. 156v-177v).


The martyrdom of St Lawrence, Egerton MS 2019, f. 209r

He is also responsible for the striking series of images that accompany the suffrages of saints. In many cases, the artist focuses on the moment of martyrdom. His vivid depictions often feature a Tarantino-esque degree of violence and gore, from beheadings to the brutal extraction of teeth. These scenes are not for the faint-hearted!


The martyrdom of St Stephen, Egerton MS 2019, f. 210r

 The martyrdom of St Sebastian, Egerton MS 2019, f. 211r

The martyrdom of St Katherine with a wheel, Egerton MS 2019, f. 215r

 The martyrdom of St Apollonia, Egerton MS 2019, f. 217r


A virgin martyr being beheaded, Egerton MS 2019, f. 232r

Why not explore more of this incredible book now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website?

- Hannah Morcos

10 September 2015

Did Someone Say a New List of Manuscript Hyperlinks?

It's that time of year when we update the list of manuscripts published on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Since spring, more than 30 medieval and early modern manuscripts have been added to our site, and you can find the full listing here:

British Library Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Digitised Manuscripts Master List 10.09.15

The new additions include a veritable cornucopia of delights, from the Articles of the Barons to the incredible 15th-century illustrations of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels.


Full-page miniature of recreation in Cyprus with a deer hunt using leopards above, and a feast below, from Illustrations for Sir John Mandeville, Voyage d’outre mer, Bohemia, c. 1410–c. 1420, Add MS 24189, f. 5v

Two of the most recent additions to Digitised Manuscripts are the early 14th-century Penwortham Breviary from northern England, and Egerton MS 2019, a striking 15th-century Book of Hours from Paris.


Calendar roundels for the month of May depicting Adam and Eve and two lovers hawking, Book of Hours, Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r

You can also now explore in full Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours (King’s MS 9), which contains love tokens exchanged between Henry VIII and his second wife (as seen on television ). We’ve also added volume 2 of the monumental Worms Bible (Harley MS 2804), a Gallican Psalter from Ireland (Additional MS 36929), and two more folding almanacs (Sloane MS 2250 and Stowe MS 1065).


Large initial with foliate and zoomorphic decoration and interlace patterns of yellow, terminating in animal and human heads, from the ‘Psalter of Cormac’, Ireland, 1275-1325, Add MS 36929, f. 2r


Zodiac man diagram, from a physician’s folding almanac, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Sloane MS 2250, f. 12r

Some of our favourite recently digitised illuminated manuscripts are the Paduan Bible Picture Book (featured in Ex(odus) Men), a charming 14th-century Book of Hours from north-eastern France (Additional MS 36684, which has something for everyone), and this Latin Apocalypse manuscript (discussed here).


Miniature of Satan returning and attacking the Holy City, from an Apocalypse in Latin with commentary, 2nd half of the 13th century, S.E. England, (?London), Additional MS 35166, f. 27r

In addition, six manuscripts with French prose narratives were digitised in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project, Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France. Find out more in our blogposts on Guiron le Courtois, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César and the prose Tristan.

 - Hannah Morcos

08 September 2015

A Romance from Ward’s Catalogue: Apollonius of Tyre

Harry Leigh Douglas Ward (1825–1906) worked in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum for 44 years from 1849, two years after he graduated from Oxford, until his retirement in 1893. During this time he produced the monumental British Museum Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in 3 volumes (the third volume was published posthumously from his notes by his colleague, J. A. Herbert). For medieval scholars this remains an essential reference work on literature, legends and chronicles, as well as a comprehensive overview of the large numbers of manuscripts containing these works in the collections of the British Library. We plan to feature his work in a series of blogposts, focusing on some of the lesser-known tales he catalogued, and featuring images from our online catalogues.

The first volume of the Catalogue, published in 1883, covers the classical romances of Troy and Alexander, the cycles of French and English origin (King Arthur, Charlemagne and William of Orange), and associated legends. 

We will start, as he does, with the CLASSICAL ROMANCES:

Royal_ms_15_e_vi_f011r DETAIL

Alexander on horseback addressing his army, from the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury Book’, northern France (Rouen) 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 11r

The Troy legend and the Alexander romances have already been featured on this blog. Less well-known is the legend of Apollonius of Tyre, for which Ward lists 10 British Library manuscripts from the 13th to the 18th century, one in French, two in Icelandic and the remainder in Latin (Ward, Catalogue of Romances I (1883), pp. 161–70). The Historia Apollonii regis Tyri, to give it its Latin name, is a prose narrative from the imperial or late antique era, perhaps based on a Greek original, popular throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, and adapted by Gower and Shakespeare. According to Ward, the earliest mention of this work is in a list of books belonging to Wando, abbot of Fontanelle in the diocese of Rouen from AD 742 to 747, which lists ‘Historiam Apollonii regis Tyri in codice uno’. Ward tells us that the booklist is from the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium published in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol ii of 1829 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p.161).


King Antiochus attacking his daughter in her chamber, with a full border containing a space left for a shield of arms, at the beginning of the ‘Historia Apollonii regis Tyri’, Netherlands, S., last quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 210r

The story exists in several different versions, but in a nutshell, is as follows: King Antiochus of Antioch has an exceptionally beautiful daughter, so beautiful that he cannot resist her charms and forces her into an incestuous relationship. Many suitors come to try to win her hand, but the King sets them an unsolvable riddle, then beheads them, whether or not they are able to solve the riddle. Prince Apollonius of Tyre comes to try his luck and is successful, but King Antiochus will not relinquish his daughter. Apollonius flees and is pursued by the king’s men, surviving various shipwrecks and adventures (including more riddle-solving), marrying and later being separated from his wife and daughter, Thasia, both of whom he believes to be dead. He is finally reunited with them and goes on to rule for many years, a virtuous king and faithful husband. In some versions of the legend, the wicked King Antiochus is struck by God’s thunderbolt as he is lying in bed with his daughter — a fitting end!

The earliest manuscript of this text in the British Library is in Sloane MS 1619, dating from the beginning of the 13th century, with a collection of three tales, the others being an abridged version of the Alexander legend and Dares Phrygiusaccount of the Trojan war. It was copied in England, probably at the Priory of St Oswald, Gloucester and contains 10 riddles, which Ward lists (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 161–63).


Concluding lines of Apollonius of Tyre and decorated initial at the beginning of Dares Phrygius, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Sloane MS 1619, f. 29r

From the end of the 13th century is Arundel MS 292 (Catalogue of Romances, I, p. 163), in which Apollonius is rather out of place in a devotional miscellany from Norfolk that includes a copy of the Creed, a bestiary in English and various tracts in prose and verse. Ward tells us that this version has only 7 of the 10 riddles and is in 22 sections. There are no photographed folios from Apollonius but here is the opening page of the manuscript with the Creed in Middle English beginning 'I leve in Godd almicten fader / Dat hevene and erthe made to gar':


The Creed and the Lord's Prayer in English, with their titles in Latin in red in the margin : 'Credo in Deum' and 'Pater Noster'.  The pressmark of Norwich Cathedral library in the upper margin, England, E (Norfolk) last quarter of the 13th century, Arundel MS 292, f. 3r

Of course, Edward IV had to have a copy of this popular work with lavish illustrations to add to his collection of classical and historical works in French. His volume, Royal MS 20 C II, begins with a version of the prose romance of Cleriadus et Meliadice, distantly related to the Arthurian tales (this will be featured in a later post), followed by the legend Apollonius. The miniature below is taken from this manuscript, the only illustrated version of the legend in our collections. And here at last, is a picture of the eligible Apollonius, kneeling before his future wife, the daughter of Archestratus of Cyrene! He has been shipwrecked on the shore of Cyrene and becomes her lute teacher, then is chosen by her from among her many illustrious suitors to be her future husband.


The princess of Cyrene giving Apollonius a letter to her father telling him she has chosen the shipwrecked sailor as her husband, Royal MS 20 C II, f. 217v

The two Icelandic manuscripts, Additional MS 4857 and Add MS 4864 are of much later provenance, copied in the 17th century. Ward had a special interest in Norse sagas, and he provides a comprehensive description of the origin of the texts, scribes and quotations in Icelandic (Catalogue of Romances, I, pp. 167–68). His colleague at the British Museum, J. A. Herbert, wrote of Ward in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

In his early official years he made a catalogue of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Museum; this was never printed, but is preserved among the books of reference in the students' room. His attention was thus directed, by way of the Norse sagas, to the study of mediæval romantic literature in general, which became henceforth the engrossing interest of his life, and in which, through his wide reading, retentive memory, and sound critical instinct, he acquired exceptional proficiency. 

A final word on Apollonius. There is an Old English version of the legend in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, a mid-11th century manuscript containing homilies by Ælfric and Wulfstan. It is an extremely rare early example of prose in the vernacular, and has even been described as the first novel in English!

Chantry Westwell

04 September 2015

Tales of Lincolnshire from Five British Library Manuscripts

As part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, the county of Lincolnshire is currently hosting an exhibition that celebrates everything that makes this county great. One of the four original 1215 endorsements of Magna Carta is held at Lincoln Cathedral and it was this piece of parchment that Churchill promised to the Americans as an incentive to join WWII (revealed in these cabinet papers recently on display in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition). But of course this is not Lincolnshire’s only claim to fame.

Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition explores the key historical events, famous figures and artistic achievements of this influential English county. In partnership with the British Library, five manuscripts from our collection are being exhibited, including one of the most renowned English illuminated manuscripts, the Luttrell Psalter.

So what can we learn about Lincolnshire from these five books?

1. Following the earthquake of 1185, Lincoln Cathedral was rebuilt under the supervision of its new Bishop, St Hugh

Detail of the beginning of ‘The Metrical Life of St Hugh’, from a miscellany of theological, grammatical and historical texts, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Royal MS 13 A IV, f. 9r

Royal MS 13 A IV contains one of only two extant copies of The Metrical Life of St Hugh. In this account of the Bishop’s life, a significant passage is dedicated to his expansion and rebuilding of the cathedral, and the theological symbolism of its architectural design.

2. Lincolnshire is the birthplace of St Gilbert, founder of the only native English religious Order


Beginning of the Life of Gilbert of Sempringham, England, 1st half of the 13th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra B I, f. 32r

One of Lincolnshire’s most famous sons is Gilbert of Sempringham (b. c. 1083, d. 1189). Unsuited to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Norman knight and landholder, Gilbert was sent to be educated. On his return, while rector of the parish church of Sempringham, he became the spiritual director of a community of anchoresses residing in a cloister attached to the church. Over a number of years and despite Gilbert’s own intentions, the Gilbertine Order was gradually established.

3. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, patron of the Luttrell Psalter, was involved in a dispute between his friend Roger de Birthorpe and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Detail of a miniature of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, mounted, armed, and attended by his wife Agnes (d. 1340), daughter of Sir Richard de Sutton, and his daughter-in-law Beatrice, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Scrope of Masham, below the inscription 'D(ominus) Galfridus Louterell me fieri fecit' (Lord Geoffrey Luttrell caused me to be made), from the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 202v

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (b. 1276, d. 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire, is most renowned for being the patron of the Luttrell Psalter. He was a knight of the realm and landowner, possessing a large number of estates across England, thanks both to fortunate conjugal alliances and his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey, who was rewarded with many properties for his loyal service to King John. Around the year 1312, Geoffrey was involved in a dispute between a group of local gentry and the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, situated seven miles to the north east of Irnham. In a royal order dated 27 July 1312, they are accused of breaking down the doors of the priory and making off with £500 worth of goods. Yet, in a review of the evidence, Joyce Coleman suggests that Geoffrey’s friend Roger de Birthorpe was in fact the instigator (‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell's Raid on Sempringham Priory, 1312’, British Library Journal (1999), 103-28). Whilst this event appears to have caused no lasting damage to the patron of our famous manuscript, Roger ended up exiled as an outlaw in Ireland. By the time of his death, Geoffrey was on better terms with the priory; his daughter Isabella was residing there as a nun, which might explain why he bequeathed 20 shillings to the establishment in his will.   

4. Eleanor of Castile’s entrails were interred in a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral


Tomb of Eleanor of Castile, from Dugdale's Book of Monuments, England, 1640-1641, Add MS 71474, f. 98v

To commemorate the death of Eleanor of Castile (b. 1241, d. 1290), Edward I commissioned the manufacture of three lavish tombs and twelve memorial crosses between Lincoln and London. Her embalmed body was interred in a tomb in Westminster Abbey, and an almost identical tomb was created for the Queen’s entrails in Lincoln Cathedral. The third tomb, containing her heart, was constructed in the Dominican church of the Blackfriars, London. The tombs at Lincoln and Westminster were the most elaborate, each surmounted by a gilt-bronze effigy, made by the goldsmith William Torel. Unfortunately, the Lincoln tomb was defaced during the English Civil Wars. However, thanks to this pen and colour wash illustration by William Sedgwick, in Sir William Dugdale's Book of Monuments, we have evidence of its original form and similarity to the Westminster tomb.

5. John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln and confessor to Henry VIII, was an unpopular figure during the Lincolnshire rising


Full-page miniature of a bishop, with Bishop Longland’s coat of arms and the red-and-white Tudor rose of Henry VIII in the border, from the Benedictional of John Longland, England, c. 1521, Add MS 21974, f. 21v

A great scholar and preacher, John Longland (b. 1520, d. 1547) became Bishop of Lincoln in May 1521, and was Henry VIII’s confessor by 1524. While in many ways a traditionalist, Bishop Longland supported the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the dissolution of the monasteries (indeed, he was particularly critical about the bad behaviour of monks). The residents of Lincolnshire, however, did not share his views. In October 1536, they mobilised in protest against the suppression of the monasteries and the establishment of the Church of England. The Bishop’s chancellor was even murdered by a mob in Horncastle. The movement gained momentum across the north of England and Longland was named on a list of heretics compiled by the rebels in York.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition, which runs until 27 September 2015.

- Hannah Morcos