Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from December 2015

31 December 2015

Party Like It's AD 999 (or 980)

This week, many people are planning parties. In the late 10th century, some reforming monks took their cues from the Romans when it came to partying. In a dedicatory letter to his bishop, Ælfheah, the writer and poet Wulfstan the Cantor remembered the party that the monks of the Old Minster, Winchester, had held after the rededication of their church on 20 October 980. The sole copy of this letter is preserved in a nearly contemporary manuscript, which has just been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts. Translated from the original Latin, the account of the party reads:

‘There were many other bishops… nobles and ealdormen, as well as the great majority of the English royal thegns… [T]hey rejoice in the sumptuous delights which the bishop [Æthelwold of Winchester] decided to lay on for everyone. Course is joined to course, every sort of food abounds: no one is sad, all are joyful. There is no hunger here, where food is in all abundance, and the table stands piled high with a variety of victuals. Circulating wine-stewards delve into the cellars and urge the revellers to begin drinking. They set up great drinking bowls and spice the wine, pouring out innumerable cups of the beverage. And abundant are the cups when the thirsty boor has drained the frothing bowl, honey-sweet in its stream! – in the end he soaks himself from the full drinking bowl itself, jamming it against his bristly chin.’ [Wulfstan of Winchester, Narratio metrica de Sancto Swithuno, in The Cult of St Swithun, trans. and ed. by Michael Lapidge (Oxford, 2003), pp. 378-79.]

Passage describing the festivities after the rededication of the Old Minster, from a dossier of materials pertaining to the cult of St Swithun, England (Winchester), c. 1000, Royal MS 15 C VII, f. 52 v

Admittedly, Wulfstan’s account is not a straightforward description of the event: rather, he modelled the section about the wine stewards on the Latin poet Virgil’s account of Dido’s feast in the Æneid (Virgil, Æneid, i.723-47). Wulfstan may have been quoting Virgil to show off his learning. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Wulfstan thought that the party Virgil described was a suitable point of reference to describe a celebration at a reformed monastery led by his beloved teacher, St Æthelwold, whom Wulfstan was urging Bishop Ælfheah to emulate.

Miniature of a dedication of a church, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England, c. 963-984, Add. MS 49598, f. 118v

Additionally, there is other evidence for an abundance of alcohol at monasteries refounded by Æthelwold. At Abingdon Abbey, where Æthelwold had been abbot between about 954 and 963, 12th- and 13th-century chroniclers claimed Æthelwold had permitted a generous daily allowance of beer, known as Æthelwold’s bowl, which was supplemented with mead on feast days. Both manuscripts of the Abingdon Chronicle are held at the British Library as Cotton MS Claudius C IX and Cotton MS Claudius B VI.

Detail of a steward pouring drinks and drinkers, from a calendar, England, second quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 4v

Wishing you equally memorable festivities wherever you are!

 Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

29 December 2015

Abraham and the Angels: The Cotton Genesis at the British Museum

The miniature of Abraham and the angels from the Cotton Genesis is one of the first items on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs currently taking place at the British Museum. The Cotton Genesis is a landmark in the history of biblical illustration. Produced probably in Egypt during the 5th or 6th century, it contains a copy of the Book of Genesis written in Greek. This extensively illuminated codex once contained a sequence of over 300 illustrations, but tragically it was severely damaged in the fire of 1731 at Ashburnham House, where it was stored together with the rest of the library of Sir Robert Cotton. In the fierce heat of the fire, the parchment leaves shrank and were partly burned or charred. Despite its poor state of preservation, the Cotton Genesis remains an exceptional witness of early biblical illustration and of the highly accomplished technique of late antique book painting.

Cotton MS Otho B VI f. 26v C7910-05
Fragment of a miniature of Abraham and two angels, from the Cotton Genesis, Egypt(?), 5th or 6th century, Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

In this scene, Abraham greets, or possibly pleads with, the angels sent by God to destroy Sodom. Parts of the Greek text are legible above and below the image.

Fragment of the miniature of the butler before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:9-13), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 87r

Here the butler with knees bent extends his arms towards the enthroned Pharaoh, and recounts how Joseph interpreted his dreams when he was in prison.

The two miniatures on the page below depict more unusual scenes. The first miniature probably features the Death of Shelah. The second miniature has been interpreted as portraying the Death of Eber or the Begetting of Peleg, or perhaps both.

Fragmentary miniatures of the Death of Shelah and the Death of Eber and/or the Begetting of Peleg (Genesis 11:14-17), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 16v

The figure of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis introduces the three religions at the centre of the British Museum exhibition, as the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The exhibition tells the complex story of religious co-presence and conflict in Egypt from 30 BC under the rule of the Roman Empire up to the decline of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Yet, the exhibition looks beyond these twelve centuries, recognising the reverberations of the Pharaonic past on this period. At the same time it provides a broader context for understanding life in Egypt today.

Codex Sinaiticus, Luke 3:21-4:18, on display at the British Museum from 29 October 2015 to 7 February 2016 (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 230v)

The miniature of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis is displayed opposite copies of the three great books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus on loan from the British Library. For the next few months, both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus are on display in London: one in the exhibition, and the other in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. Read more about Codex Sinaiticus here.

Other British Library loans to Egypt: faith after the pharaohs include a papyrus in Greek with the manumission of a 40-year-old female slave and her children, dated 14 April AD 291. There is also a number of Arabic, Coptic and Hebrew items from the British Library’s African and Asian collections. These include the First Gaster Bible (Or MS  9879) , a Coptic spell to cast out demons (Or 6796), and a 14th-century illuminated copy of Abu Al Qasim Al-'iraqi’s Kitab al-aqalim Al-saba'ah (Add MS 25724).

The British Museum exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is open until 7 February 2016.

-  Hannah Morcos

24 December 2015

Christmas Eve Shepherds' Party

Every Christmas we publish gorgeous images of the Nativity from our manuscripts: tranquil scenes of the stable in Bethlehem, with the Christ child in the crib, a serene Mary, Joseph and the animals looking on.  Of course on Christmas Eve another amazing event was taking place not far away: the Angel Gabriel appeared to the shepherds on a hillside, and the news he gave them caused quite a stir.  The Annunciation to the Shepherds, usually depicted at the beginning of Office of Terce in the Hours of the Virgin, gave medieval illuminators more scope for creative interpretation – there is some wonderfully strange and anarchic shepherd-behaviour, and then there are the sheep, some cute and cuddly, some looking more like aardvarks !  This Christmas eve we have decided to share some of our favourite shepherd scenes with you.  

We have chosen our favourite image in various categories, but we invite our readers to make suggestions.

The best party atmosphere

Add_ms_47682_f013r copy
The Angel and Shepherds with sheep and dog,  England, S.E., c 1327-1335, from ‘The Holkham Bible Picture Book’,
Add MS 47682, f. 13r 

The most cuddly shepherds and sheep

The Angel proclaims the Good News to two shepherds and a shepherdess, The Netherlands,  (Utrecht or Delft), c. 1410-1420, from a Book of Hours,  
Add MS 50005, f. 36v

The cheekiest shepherds  (with the most fashionable footwear)

Upper half of a two-part image of the Nativity, England, Central (Oxford), 1st quarter of the 13th century, from a Psalter,
Arundel MS 157, f. 3v

The happiest dancing sheepdog

Angels appear to the shepherds and sheepdog, France (Tournai), c. 1480, from a Book of Hours,
Harley MS 2923, f. 66

The most relaxed shepherd

Seated shepherd with angel above and strewn border, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1500, from 'Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours',
Kings MS 9, f. 99v 

The shepherds with the best dancing style

011LAN000000431U00074V00 copy
The Annunciation to the Shepherds, England, E. (East Anglia?) 1st quarter of the 13th century, from a Psalter, Lansdowne MS 431, f. 74v

The most excited sheep

Royal_ms_6_e_vi_f008r copy
The angel appears to two shepherds on the hillside, England, S.E., c. 1360-c. 1375, from the ‘Omne Bonum’, Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 8r

The shepherds with the most flexible necks

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, France (Paris), last quarter of the 14th century, from the 'Hours of Nicolas Rolin', Yates Thompson MS 45, f. 53

The weirdest-looking shepherds  - note the hat and bagpipes !

Historiated initial of the Annunciation to the shepherds, with full border, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c 1320 from the ‘St Omer Hours’, Add MS 36684, f. 43v

We wish all our readers a festive Christmas Eve!

-  Chantry Westwell

22 December 2015

Bins, Books and Bodian (Preaching): Ælfric and Christmas

For reformed Anglo-Saxon monks, the year began with Advent and Christmas.

The Nativity, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England, c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 15v.

Although Easter was considered the more important holiday by Anglo-Saxon churchmen, Christmas and Advent liturgies feature at the start of the year in liturgical manuscripts produced by the monks in the late 10th century in England, as elsewhere. Many of these manuscripts are now preserved at the British Library. For example, in two series of Old English sermons, written by Ælfric of Eynsham, the first sermons were devoted to Christmas. A sermon for December 25th is the first sermon in his Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII), and the second sermon in his first series of the Catholic Homilies (Royal MS 7 C XII). Both these manuscripts are now available online, via Digitised Manuscripts.

The beginning of the sermon for Christmas, Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, Southern England, 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 5v

In the sermon in the Catholic Homilies, Ælfric summarizes the story of Christ’s birth as it is found in the Gospels for his Old English-speaking audience, describing how Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, how they had to stay in a stables, and how Christ was born in a stable and placed in a binn (the Old English word for a manger or basket which is the root of the modern English word ‘bin’). He then provides context for his listeners by discussing some Roman history, the etymology of the name ‘Bethlehem’, the different ways angels appeared to humans in the Old and New Testaments, and compared the shepherds of the Biblical story to contemporary teachers and preachers.

The beginning of the sermon for Christmas, the First Series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, Cerne, 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 9v

Ælfric was a monk and the most prolific Old English author whose works still survive. He lived in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. As a boy, he had been trained at Winchester in the school of Bishop Æthelwold, the church reformer whose Benedictional appears above. By about 987, Ælfric had come to the attention of the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the literati, because he was sent to the church which the thegn (important layman) Æthelmaer had founded or refounded at Cerne. There, around 990, Ælfric wrote a series of sermons for two whole liturgical years: the first and second series of the Catholic Homilies. The manuscript which has just been put online is believed to have been written at Cerne: in fact, some of the marginal notes might even be in Ælfric’s own handwriting, as he apparently edits the text and tries to avoid repeating himself. For example, in the image below, Ælfric appears to have put a box around the text he would like to be deleted from future copies of this sermon. A note at the side explains that this information is repeated, in more detail, in the ‘other book’ (presumably his second series of the Catholic Homilies).

Annotations on a sermon, possibly by Ælfric, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r

Ælfric’s career was only just taking off at that point. The Catholic Homilies were copied and distributed with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric. Later in the 990s, Æthlmaer and his father, Ealdorman (senior government official) Æthelweard asked Ælfric to write a further series of homilies about the lives of various saints. The earliest manuscript of this series, Cotton Julius E VII, is now also available on Digitised Manuscripts.

Ælfric’s name begins with a colourful initial in this preface to his Lives of the Saints, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 3v

The quality of the colourful and ornate initials in this, slightly later manuscript shows how Ælfric had attracted the attention of patrons and scriptoria with better resources than the scriptoria at Cerne, where the earliest surviving manuscript of the Catholic Homilies is believed to have been written.

In addition to his sermon series, Ælfric wrote several instructional works, including a grammar and a colloquy (an imaginary dialogue between men of different professions, designed to teach young monks Latin). Even judging from the number of surviving copies, Ælfric’s Grammar was a popular work in late Anglo-Saxon England, even a bestseller. Eventually, Ælfric became abbot of Eynsham, just outside of Oxford.

So, whether you are looking for a sermon for Christmas, for key texts by the most prolific Old English author, or simply the root of the word ‘bin’, you can click over Digitised Manuscripts to see all these works in more detail.

Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

20 December 2015

Medieval Festive Survival Guide

To help you negotiate the festive season, medieval writers, illustrators and patrons had some useful tips …

1. Ensure the prompt delivery of your Christmas greetings by hiring a messenger.

Detail of a messenger from Guillaume de Lorris’s and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, Low Countries (Bruges), c 1490-c 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 137v

2. If you’re stuck for gift ideas, books always make great presents. The Bedford Hours was once a Christmas gift.

The Wise Men offering Christ gifts, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 75r

3. On the subject of gifts, if you can’t find a partridge for your pear tree, a king will do…

King Mark Pear Tree
Image of King Mark in a pear tree, from a series of drawings illustrating the Tristan romance, England (London?), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 11619, f. 8r

4. At Christmas parties, don’t get caught out under the mistletoe: timing is everything!

Royal 20 A XVII Pygmalion
Detail of Pygmalion kissing the statue, from Roman de la Rose, Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340, Royal MS 20 A XVII , f. 171r   

5. Know when you have had enough to drink.

Royal 6 E VII K042592
Ebrietas (Drunkenness) from Omne Bonum (Ebrietas-Humanus), England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375,
Royal MS 6 E VII , f. 1r

6. If you discover you have a headache, though, try tying some crosswort to your head with a red cloth or smearing your temples with pennyroyal boiled in oil or butter or placing ‘stones’ from three young sparrows on your head. This allegedly also works for nightmares, temptations and ‘evil enchantments by song’ (for an edition and translation, see Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, ed. by T. O. Cockayne, Rolls Series, 3 vols (London: Longmans, 1864-66), vol II (1864), pp. 304-07).

Remedies of headaches, from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 111r

7. Enjoy Christmas dinner.

Add 15268 Feasting c13842-19a
Detail of feasting from Histoire Universelle, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), c. 1275-91, Add MS 15268, f. 242v

8. Enjoy some seasonal music.

Part of the liturgy for Christmas, from the Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter), c. 1050-c. 1072, Harley MS 2961, f. 12v

9. And remember, a dog is for life not just for Christmas.

Margaret of York dog
Miniature of the resurrected Christ with Margaret of York and a dog, from
Nicolas Finet, Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Add MS 7970, f. 1v

Dogs Royal MS 20 A II, f 8v
Detail of King John with a hunting dog, from a collection of drawings with various inscriptions and poems, Northern England, c. 1307-1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

17 December 2015

Medieval Star Wars

It can hardly have escaped your notice that a rather major feature film opened across the world this week.  We all are awash in the sights, sounds, and excitement of the newest Star Wars movie, and as you know, the Medieval Manuscripts department is always eager to join in the fun.  It may seem a stretch to discuss medieval manuscripts in the context of a futuristic saga, but have no fear – we’ll give it a good try nonetheless. 

Add MS 11639 f. 517r c11803-08 copy
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… and you know the rest. Image of stars and the heavens from the Northern French Miscellany, France, 1277-1286, Add MS 11639, f. 517r

The jewel in our Star Wars crown is the very Yoda-like creature below, which can be found in an book of canon law now known as the Smithfield Decretals.  Written probably in Toulouse, the manuscript arrived in London in the early part of the 14th century, where numerous marginal illuminations were added.  When we first meet Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, his age is given as 900 years, meaning that he would have been about 260 at the time of the illumination of the Smithfield Decretals.  It is therefore entirely possible (if not probable) that this is a portrait drawn from life.

Detail of Yoda (or a look-alike), from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (with marginal scenes added in London), c. 1300 – c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

Yoda is not the only inhabitant of the Star Wars universe to be found on the pages of our medieval manuscripts.  For example, a brief suspension of disbelief might allow one to see Leia wielding two light-sabres in the lady below.

Detail of a lady, from the St Omer Book of Hours, France, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 3v

Chewbacca has a precursor in the wodewose or wild man, though these medieval half-human creatures did not generally cooperate with humanity quite as well as the noble Wookiee. 

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 173r G70031-80a
Details of wodewoses, from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 70r, and 
from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 173r

With diligent searching, a whole host of other characters appears:

An early Sith? Detail from the alchemical treatise Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582, Harley MS 3469, f. 18r

A progenitor of Bib Fortuna: detail of a panotii from the Marvels of the East, England (Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 83v

Add MS 26968 f. 284v d40054-21a
Royal MS 2 B VII f. 179v G70034-77a
Ewok-ish creatures: from an Italian rite prayer book, Italy, 1383, Add MS 26968, f. 284v, and from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 179v

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f180v copy
Jedi or Jawa?  Detail from the Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 180v

A creature at home in Mos Eisley Cantina, from the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f.48r

An unguarded (and unhelmeted) Darth Vader, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 116v

We would love to see or hear about anything else that you might be able to come up with.  As always, you can leave a note in the comments below, or tweet us @BLMedieval.  May the force be with you!

15 December 2015

Help Us Choose our 2016 Calendar

It has long been a tradition on our blog, hailing back to the distant days of 2011, to highlight pages from a medieval calendar throughout the year.  We have been privileged to bring you the Isabella Breviary, the Hours of Joanna of Castile (or if you prefer, the Hours of Joanna the Mad), the Golf Book, the Huth Hours, and most recently, the London Rothschild Hours

For 2016, we’d like to do something a little different – we’d like for you to help us decide which calendar to feature.  We have selected 4 potential manuscripts, all listed below.  Please let us know which one you’d like to see throughout 2016!  You can leave your favourite in the comments below, or tell us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Without any further ado, here are the contenders:

Add MS 18850:  The Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410 – 1430 (this manuscript was also included in Turn the Pages)

Calendar page for January from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

Add MS 36684:  The St Omer Hours, France (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c. 1320 (for more on this fabulous manuscript, see our posts Apes Pulling Shapes and Something for Everyone)

Calendar page for February from the St Omer Hours, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

Egerton MS 1070: The Hours of René of Anjou, France (Paris), 15th century

Calendar page for March from The Hours of René of Anjou, Egerton MS 1070, f. 8r

Cotton MS Galba A XVII:  The Athelstan Psalter (or Galba Psalter), northeast France, 1st half of the 9th century (more on this one: King Athelstan’s Books and Athelstan Psalter Online)

Calendar page from the Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVII, f. 3r

- Sarah J Biggs

12 December 2015

Almanacs Online!

In the 15th century, a significant number of portable almanacs were produced in England, and the British Library holds a considerable number of those that survive. No fewer than 10 of these almanacs, and several related items, have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts site.    


Parchment forming outer cover of a folded almanac with cord, N. England, (1469), Cotton Ch VIII 26

Portable almanacs were most probably made to be used by physicians and those with an interest in astronomy, astrology and prognostication. They were small, consisting usually of 6 to 8 parchment leaves folded in half and then into 4 or 6 oblong sections, sewn together at one edge with a tab that could be fastened to the girdle with a piece of cord. On the outside of each section were often titles for easy reference so that the correct page could be selected.


Green fabric cover of a folded almanac, England, c. 1431, Add MS 17358

The contents vary, but usually include a calendar, together with tables and diagrams for calculating the movements of the heavenly bodies and their influences on the human body.

From Carolingian times, liturgical calendars were produced. They were used to calculate the days and dates of fixed and movable Christian feasts such as Easter and Christmas for any given year, sometimes including astrological and astronomical tables. An example of a folded calendar is this one made in Italy in c. 1381 which has a folio for each month with the title on the reverse, and calendar tables. It is very small, about the size of a credit card when folded.


Calendar page for June from a folded calendar, Italy, c. 1381, Add MS 30034, f. 10r

The calendar was one of the components of the almanac, containing useful information such as the time of sunrise and sunset for each day of the month; decorated initials and the use of colour made the data easier to interpret.   


Calendar pages with gold initials, from an almanac, England, c. 1463, Add MS 28725, f. 4v

This manuscript was featured in ‘Guess the manuscript’ a while ago.


Open calendar page with gold initials, N. England, c. 1430, Harley MS 937, f. 4v

To the calendar are added more complex scientific and medical tables and diagrams, to make up the type of almanac produced from the late 14th century onwards. A popular version was the Kalendarium of John Somer which provided all the necessary information to calculate solar, lunar and planetary movements.


Diagram of solar and lunar eclipses, England, c. 1444, Sloane MS 807, f. 9v


Diagram of solar and lunar eclipses, England, after 1415, Sloane MS 2250, f. 15r

For the use of medieval physicians, diagrams of Zodiac man and Vein man were included. Zodiac man has the signs of the Zodiac represented on different parts of the body in which they have influence, for example Pisces is at the feet. Some of these diagrams are highly decorative, and were no doubt treasured possessions as well as works of reference.

There are some interesting male hairstyles: this zodiac man looks rather 1970s!


Diagram of Zodiac man with long hair, England, c. 1463, Add MS 28725, f. 7v

The prize for originality:  a headband with neat curls - and a ram on top!


Diagram of Zodiac man with animals, England, after 1415, Sloane MS 2250, f. 12r


Homo venarum and tabula lunae, England, N (1469), Cotton Ch VIII 26, f. 12r

This one could be a barrister, or the Prince Regent in Blackadder III.


Diagram of blood-letting man, England, c. 1406, Harley MS 5311, f. 10v

Finally, this colourful image of urine flasks describes the complaints associated with each colour and the text on the side gives instructions for treating the various illnesses.


Diagrams of the sphere of Apuleius with canon on the nature of those born under different planets and a chart of urine flasks, England, c. 1406, Harley MS 5311, f. 2v

- Chantry Westwell