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9 posts from January 2016

28 January 2016

Tales of Half-Friends, Bedcovers and Sheep crossing streams: A parental lecture of the 13th century

 Harley MS 527, a collection of romantic and didactic texts, mostly in Anglo-Norman French has recently been fully digitised. Of particular interest is a version of Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis in Anglo-Norman French verse. This popular text is of Eastern origin and consists of a series of moral tales or exempla used by a father to instruct his son; Ward includes it in his Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum vol 2, (1893) under ‘Eastern Legends and Tales’.

Harley_ms_527_f032v
Prologue of the Chastoiement d'un Père à son fils, England (or France), 4th quarter of the 12th century to 1st half of the 13th century, Harley MS 527, f. 32v

Petrus Alfonsi, the author of the Latin text, was formerly known as Rabbi Moses Sephardi and was physician to Alfonso I of Aragon.  When he converted to Christianity, he took the name Alfonsi in honour of his patron, and his writings often deliberately reject the teachings of Judaism to demonstrate his loyalty to his new religion

 

K060808
Detail of Alfonso of Aragon, with a prisoner brought before him, France, Paris, 4th quarter of the 14th century, after 1380, Royal 20 C VII, f. 23v

First Alfonsi and then later the unknown French translator of this work added detail and dialogue to embellish the original Eastern version and, in the latter instance to enhance its appeal to the 13th century public; for example a fox appears in some versions and ‘Paris’ is substituted for ‘Pareis’ or ‘Parais’ (Old French for ‘paradise’). However, some references to Eastern culture are retained, such as the mention of a ‘prodom’ (gentleman) who goes on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

There are 6 surviving copies in the Anglo-Norman dialect, of which the British Library has two: Harley MS 527 and Harley 4388, another collection of tales and proverbs.

C13131-08
Text page with decorated initials, England or France, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4388, f. 41v

Of the 6 known versions in Old French (as written in France during this period, as compared to the Anglo-Norman dialect of England), one is currently in the British Library. Additional MS 10289 is a manuscript from Mont Saint Michel that has featured in a number of blogposts as it also contains the legend of Titus and Vespasian and the Romance of Mont Saint Michel.

Add_ms_10289_f133r
Puzzle initial at the beginning of Le Chastoiement d'un Père à son fils, in Old French, from a St Michel manuscript, 4th quarter of the 13th century, France (Normandy), Add MS 10289, f. 133r

The Anglo-Norman text of Le Chastoiement in Harley MS 527 contains 26 tales by which a father instructs his son how to conduct his relationships with God and his fellow man, i.e. his friends, parents and spouse.  The father begins with an appeal for his son’s undivided attention. Does this sound familiar to fathers and sons who read our blog ?

 

 Beu fiz dist il a me entent                                            Good son, he said, listen to me

Ne lessez pas coler au vent                                         Do not let the wind blow away

Ceo ke tun pere te dirat                                                                What your father is going to tell you

Si ben le entendes il te vaudrat                                 He wants you to listen carefully.

 

The tales that follow are colourful, entertaining and sometimes gruesome.  Though Harley 527 is not illuminated, we have found images from other manuscripts to illustrate some of the tales. I include some of Ward’s quaint and amusing titles in English.

 

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Caesarius' body in a sack, from a Passionale,  England, S. E. (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century, Arundel MS 91, f. 188r

The Half-Friend or ‘Le Demi Ami’: a father asks his son how many friends he has made in his life to date, and the son answers 100.  The father on the other hand, says he has only half a friend, and is sceptical of his son’s claim.  To test the loyalty of the son’s friends, he tells him to place an animal carcass in a sack, pretend it is a human body and ask his friends to help him dispose of it.  In the end only the father’s ‘half-friend’ comes to his assistance. The father tells his son that only someone who will help when you are in need is a true friend and he follows with the second tale about ‘Two Merchants (‘Les Deux Amis’), one from Baghdad and one from Egypt, one of whom is prepared to sacrifice his true love and the other his life for his friend.

Next the father warns his son that many women are deceitful and evil and that men need God’s help to protect them from their wiles. The exempla seem rather to show the extraordinary ingenuity of the women in question! In all three tales the husband returns home unexpectedly while the wife is entertaining her lover.

 

K061043
Vulcan finding Venus and Mars together, from The Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?), c. 1380, Egerton MS 881, f. 141v

In ‘Le Borgne’ or ‘The Man with the injured eye’ a man blinds himself in his one eye while dressing his vines and returns home for some tlc from his wife.  She is otherwise occupied and hides her lover in the bed, then tells her husband she will administer a charm to help him. She places her mouth over his good eye, blocking his vision while the lover escapes, telling him that her charm that will prevent him from injuring his other eye, and with that she sends him off to bed!  In the next tale, The Husband who had a bed-coverlet held before him or ‘La Toile tendue’, the wife and her mother hold up a new quilt or bed cover they have made for the husband to admire, while the lover escapes behind it.

C13344-52
Women washing clothes in wooden tubs, from the Splendor Solis, Germany, 1582, Harley MS 3469, f. 32v

Found in a unique Anglo-Norman version in Harley MS 527, ‘The Cuvier‘ or the Gallant hidden under the washing-tub  is a further variation on the above tales, with the lover in a similarly ridiculous position, the husband fooled, and the devious wife triumphant, though shown in a thoroughly bad light.

Harley_ms_527_f038r
Le
Cuvier, an exemplum from the Chastoiement d'un Père à son fils, Harley MS 527, f.38r

Unsurprisingly, the son seems to enjoy these tales and keeps asking for more.  After another such tale, he naturally decides he will not marry, and the father has to tell him the tale of a clever and virtuous woman. Of course the latter tale is rather boring so we will not go into details here !

In the time-honoured way of parents, the father cannot resist slipping in tales of respect for one’s elders and superiors, and then there is the story of a young clerk who is enticed into a tavern and who comes to a bad end.  One can imagine the son rolling his eyes at this obvious propaganda, nevertheless he keeps asking his father for more stories.

 

K90058-22a
Solomon instructing his son, from a Bible historiale, France, Central (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 289r

The tenth exemplum is a very clever tale of ingenuity and a riposte by the father to the son’s insatiable demands. In ‘Le Conteur’ or ‘The Storyteller, found in Add MS 10289 but not in the Harley manuscript, a king’s storyteller tells him five stories each night until, on one occasion, the king is not sleepy and demands more.  Unlike Scheherazade, who had to tell stories for 1001 nights, the clever storyteller invents the following ruse so that he can go to sleep without losing his head.  He begins a tale about a peasant returning from a fair where he has bought many sheep, and who needs to cross a stream with them to get home.  The only way across is with an old woman in a small boat that can only take two sheep at a time. After relating how the first two sheep cross, the storyteller falls asleep. When the king wakes him to demand that he continue, he says that it is going to take hours for the sheep to cross the wide river in the slow boat, so they may as well sleep in the meantime and resume the tale in the morning.  The king is pleased with his storyteller’s cleverness and he is allowed to go back to sleep.

~Chantry Westwell

Further Reading

H.L.D. Ward, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol 2 (1893), pp. 253-58.

Le Chastoiement d'un père à son fils, a critical edition, ed. by Edward D Montgomery, Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 101 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971).

Ruth J. Dean, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1999), nos 184, 263.

20 January 2016

New Arrivals for the New Year on Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

A new year brings a new update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts – a host of new images and new manuscripts are now available online.  As many users of this catalogue will know, it complements our Digitised Manuscripts website, where complete manuscripts are digitised. CIM (our pet name for it) focuses on the illuminations, providing a selection of images with each catalogue entry, and the in-depth image descriptions are designed to allow searches for details within the images. For instance, the Advanced Search allows users to search for an image of a horse in a French manuscript of the 14th century. 13 horses of all shapes and sizes appear, from manuscripts as diverse as the Roman de Brut and the Queen Mary Psalter, including this one from the Chroniques de France:

K137598
Detail of a miniature of Brunhilda being dragged by hands and hair behind a horse, France, Central (Paris), 1332-1350,  Royal 16 G VI, f. 87

All images in the catalogue are in the public domain, so they are free to download and use.  See http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/reuse.asp for guidelines. For this reason we continue to add manuscripts that are already fully digitised, in some cases.

Once again, we have mostly worked on French manuscripts in the Additionals collection. Here is a selection of new additions.

Illuminated Apocalypses: a gift from the team in Medieval manuscripts to cheer up a bleak January day (or not !): 9 new manuscripts have been added, including the usual weird/horrific images:

Add MS 19896

K138430
A two-part miniature of the Devil, the Beast the False Prophet and all the Wicked in the lake of fire and brimstone (above); God in a mandorla judging the Dead, with books opened (below), Germany, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22

Add MS 17333

K151518
Half-page framed miniature of the angel showing John the heavenly city with a decorated initial and foliate partial border, France, N. W. (Normandy), c.1320-1330, Add MS 17333, f. 45v

Add MS 22493

059384
Framed miniature of the Rider on the Pale Horse, depicted as a skeleton with the two mouths of hell behind him, France, N.E. (Lorraine: Metz or Verdun), 4th quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 22493, f. 3v

Images from these three Apocalypses, together with Add MSS 17399, Add MS 19896, Add MS 38118 and Add MS 38121 appear online for the first time. Add MS 11695 (the amazing Silos Apocalypse), Add MS 35166 and Add MS 15243 are already in Digitised Manuscripts, but have been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with a selection of images and detailed descriptions.

Further horrors are on view in this manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, added to the 7 already in the catalogue:

B20133-15
Bas-de page scene of the sowers of discord displaying their wounds (left); Bertrand de Born depicted twice, showing Dante and Virgil his severed head, from Canto 28 of the Inferno, Italy, S. (Naples), c. 1370, Add MS 19587, f. 47v

3 manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose have been added to the 11 already in the catalogue. Here are images from two of them:

Add MS 31840

B20153-25
Framed miniature of the Lover asleep at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose, with full foliate border and hounds chasing rabbits in the lower section, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 31840, f. 3

Add 42133

C02249-01
Framed miniature of the God of Love locking the Lover's heart with a large gold key, from the Roman de la Rose, France (Paris),  4th quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 42133, f. 15

 

A magnificent Bible Historiale in 2 volumes. Here is an image from volume 2:

A80139-84
The beginning of the Book of Matthew with a half-page framed miniature of the Trinity and the four Evangelists with the coat of arms of England and France, illuminated initial and a full foliate border, France, C. (Paris), c. 1420, Add MS 18857, f. 148

Add MS 10628

­The Kalendarium of John Somer.  The contents are related to the series of physicians’ folding almanacs we recently published in Digitised Manuscripts, as described in a recent blogpost, Almanacs Online

 011ADD000010628U00025000

Diagram of Zodiac Man with symbols and labels of the signs of the zodiac, England, S.W., c.1383-1384, Add MS 10628, f. 25

Montecassino Exultet Roll

Lastly a manuscript that is also available on Digitised Manuscripts but worth including in CIM for its unusual format and beautiful early images from Montecassino. It includes the Exultet, a hymn sung by a deacon during the consecration of the Paschal candle, during the Easter Vigil. See our blog post from 2013, which explains why the images are upside down!

 C0889-07

A miniature of the Crossing of the Red Sea and a miniature of the Harrowing of Hell, Italy, S. (Monte Cassino), c. 1075, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

Other new additions are

Add MS 16441, Roman d’Athis et Porfilias

Add MS 18856, Bible Historiale, vol 1

Add MS 36673, Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 72707: A leaf from the Hungerford Hours. Other leaves from this manuscript in the British Library are:

Add MS 61887 

And Add 62106 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

18 January 2016

Elves and Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

Recently, three beautiful Mercian prayerbooks from the late 8th and early 9th century have been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. These manuscripts, which  were probably made somewhere in what is now western England, are notable for a variety of reasons: the distinctive initials, the earliest known copy of a Lorican prayer (a prayer of protection developed in Ireland), and the use of female pronouns in some prayers, suggesting they may have been made or owned by women.

A page from the Royal Prayerbook, showing an initial with a biting beast.
Initial with a biting beast from the Royal Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

A page from the Book of Nunnaminster, showing a large decorated initial.
Initial from the Book of Nunnaminster, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

A detail of a Latin prayer that uses female forms, from the Harley Prayerbook.
Detail of a Latin prayer with female forms (‘ut pro me d[e]i famula oretis’), from the Harley Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 7653, f. 1r

One of these prayerbooks-- the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX-- is also notable for containing one of the earliest known written reference to an elf (ælf or ylfe in Old English).  Unlike the heroic and otherworldly beings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga or Santa’s jolly assistants in American literature, the elf in this text seems to be rather sinister. The prayer in which the elf is mentioned seems to be an exorcism: ‘I conjure you, devil of Satan, of (an/the) elf, through the living and true God...that he is put to flight from that person’ (translated from the original Latin by Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 72).

A detail from the Royal Prayerbook, showing the text of a prayer that mentions an ælf.
Detail of a prayer mentioning an ‘ælf’, from the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

The association of Satan with an elf or someone called ‘Elf’ may reflect pre-Christian beliefs in Anglo-Saxon society. We have no direct written evidence for pre-Christian society or even later popular beliefs amongst the Anglo-Saxons; however, belief in elves features in later medieval accounts of Norse paganism, which may have shared some elements of its mythology with Anglo-Saxon paganism. The author of this prayer may have compared Satan to an elf to help his or her Anglo-Saxon audience understand who Satan was and what his powers were.

Elves also have negative connotations in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies and diagnostic guides which has also now been digitised and put online (for more information about this manuscript, see our post Bald’s Leechbook Now Online). On the page shown below, there are charms which suggest elves could cause pain in domestic animals. Elves are also associated with diseases of the head and with mental illness in the leechbooks.

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing Old English charms that possibly mention elves.
Charms possibly mentioning elves and reference to King Ælfræd (see below),  Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), 1st half of 10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 106r

Likewise, in Beowulf, elves (spelt ylfe) were included amongst the races of monsters. They are mentioned in a passage which, translated from the Old English by Seamus Heaney, claims:

‘...out of his (Cain’s) exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God’

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing a passage that mentions elves.
A passage mentioning elves, from Beowulf, England, 1st quarter of 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 134r

However, elves may not always have entirely negative connotations in Anglo-Saxon lore. In the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, many members of the West Saxon nobility gave their children names that included the element ‘ælf’: perhaps the most notable example is Alfred, or Ælfræd, the Great. Charters list many Ælfstans, Ælfgifus, and Ælfrics, although it is unclear if Anglo-Saxons chose names because they sounded like the supernatural beings called 'elves' or just as part of longstanding naming traditions. (See, for example, Fran Colman’s The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)).  

Very beautiful women were sometimes also compared to elves, although these texts suggest that such elfin beauty could lead to trouble. In the Anglo-Saxon poem about Judith, the Biblical heroine is described as ælfscinu, or beautiful like an elf.

A passage from the Old English poem Judith, where she is described as an elfin beauty.
Judith described as an elfin beauty, from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 202r

Thus, Anglo-Saxons imaginings of elves may also have been more complicated than our limited sources can reveal. Indeed, an early 10th-century glossary distinguished between different types of elves, such as mountain elves (dunelfen) and wood elves (wuduelfe), and used them to translate different types of nymphs from classical mythology.

A detail from a fragment of an 11th-century schoolbook.
Detail of a glossary comparing nymphs to different types of elves, from a fragment of a schoolbook, England (Abingdon?), 1st quarter of 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 21r.

These are just a few of the references to elves in Old English literature. These references have sometimes been used to portray the Anglo-Saxons as superstitious and even credulous, but they appear in texts that exhibit complicated theological ideas, advanced linguistics, and even powerful medical remedies that have been verified using modern scientific techniques. And the idea of elves continues to fascinate many people to this day. So please click over to Digitised Manuscripts to explore these manuscripts and their elves.

Alison Hudson, Project Curator: Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

14 January 2016

A Belated Holiday Gift from Us: a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

It's that time of year again, friends, and we're pleased to (belatedly) celebrate the holidays by giving you a magnificent gift.  This gift is certainly worth the wait, though - a massive list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks!  We're mixing it up a little bit this time, though, as the list is now a PDF, but fully searchable and with working hyperlinks.  You can download it here:  Download BL AMEM Digitised Manuscripts Master List.  There are 1429 manuscripts on this list now, we are staggered to report.

Add_ms_88991_f002v
Illuminated frontispiece of the marital arms of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (created 1st Duke of Somerset, and Lord Protector in 1547) and his second wife, Lady Anne Stanhope, with the Seymour family motto ‘Foy pour Devoir’, from the Taverner Prayer Book, England (London), c. 1540, Add MS 88991, f. 2v

In honour of our biggest ever list of hyperlinks, we're pleased to share one of our smallest manuscripts, the Taverner Prayer Book (see above), which recently went online.  We've also added quite a few manuscripts from our Anglo-Saxon project, along with many from the illuminated collections in general.  We have some big plans for the coming year and many more manuscripts to share with you, so watch this space!

-   Sarah J Biggs

12 January 2016

Aelred of Rievaulx

Are any readers taking on new endeavours as part of New Year’s Resolutions? If so, you might consider the example of Aelred of Rievaulx, who died on this day in 1167. Aelred (also spelled Ailred and Æthelred) was a saint, scholar, friend, diplomat, abbot, traveller, mentor, property manager, and more!


Royal 5 B IX f 51
Detail of initial from Aelred of Rievaulx's Sermons on Isaiah, England, 13th century, Royal MS 5 B IX, f. 51 r

Aelred was the son of the last hereditary priest of Hexham, who in turn was descended from a long line of churchmen who had tended the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham. However, Aelred did not immediately follow in the family’s footsteps: after training at Durham, he went to the court of the king of Scotland. There he befriended the future king David I of Scotland, with whom he conducted several diplomatic missions. On David’s death in 1153, a grief-stricken Aelred wrote a eulogy for David, which became the first chapter of his Genealogia regum Anglorum. His Genealogia survives in several British Library manuscripts, including Cotton MS Cleopatra B III, Cotton MS Vespasian B XI, Cotton MS Vitellius F III, Cotton MS Vespasian A XVIII, Cotton MS Julius A XI, Cotton MS Otho D VII, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, Royal MS 13 D V, Arundel MS 161, and others.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_viii_f122r
Page from Aelred of Rievaulx's Genealogia regum Anglorum, England, c. 1275-c.1325, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 122r 

By that stage, Aelred had been persuaded to become a Cistercian monk at the abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire.  Aelred would go on to become abbot first of Revesby, also in Yorkshire, and then of Rievaulx itself. Even while he was a monk and abbot, Aelred’s political and diplomatic talents came in handy, as he was involved in discussions during the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, managing and expanding his abbeys’ property, negotiating a peace between Fergus of Galloway and his sons, persuading Henry II to support the papacy of Alexander III, travelling to Cîteaux every year, and doubling the number of monks at Rievaulx.

In between all this activity, Aelred was a prolific writer, and the British Library possesses manuscripts of several of Aelred’s best known works, like his Speculum Caritatis, written at the request of the leader of the Cistercian order, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Royal 5 B IX f 159v
Opening of Aelred of Rievaulx's Speculum Caritatis, Royal MS 5 B IX, f. 159v

Additionally, the British Library possesses manuscripts of his vita of Edward the Confessor, which continued to be popular into the later Middle Ages, and his tract De spiritali amicitia, in which he mused, ‘Friendship is its own reward’. 

Stowe 104, ff. 119v-120r
Pages from Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita S Edwardi, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Stowe MS 104, ff. 119v-120r

Harley 4976 f. 1
Opening page from Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita S Edwardi, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Harley MS 4976, f 1r.

The British Library also has several copies of Aelred’s  De institutione inclusarum, including one which was owned by Henry VII (Cotton MS Vitellius E VII). Aelred had originally written De institutione inclusarum for his sister.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are in the long process of digitising our medieval manuscripts. To find out more about Aelred from some of the manuscripts that we have already digitised, please click on the links above.

-Alison Hudson

09 January 2016

Until We Meet Again

As my time here in the British Library ticks away, I have very much to be grateful for.  It has been a massive privilege and pleasure to work with my marvellous colleagues in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts department, and to be able to have daily contact with such a spectacular collection of manuscripts.  One of my greatest joys has been this blog, which I will continue to contribute to, albeit from across the pond.  But as a way to mark the end of this particular era, I thought I would share some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years.  Without further ado, the Sarah J Biggs Top Ten (chosen via the totally unscientific process of me picking what I liked):

 

10.  Erasing Becket:  a post spurred by a number of reader enquiries about the practice of removing references to St Thomas Becket from medieval manuscripts

Erasing Becket
Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and excision of the suffrage of Thomas Becket, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd  quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

 

9.  An Old World View of the New: a rare opportunity for me to work on material concerning the Americas, based on a miniature fraught with a legacy of slavery and genocide.

Old World
Miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

 

8.  The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts: what it says on the tin.  Although now that I think about it I never did write the promised follow-up about medieval artists.

Burden
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

 

7.  ‘Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible’ Design: The Marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter and More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility’: Profane Images in a Sacred Space:  this glorious two-part post was great fun for me to research and even more fun to write, and firmly established my interest in rude medieval monkeys.

Gorleston
Detail of a marginal creature pulling a face, from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 123r

 

6.  Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter:  Marginalia, monsters, and monkeys!  How could anything be better?

Rutland
Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

 

5.  The Anatomy of a Dragon: another examination of fantastical medieval creatures (a bit of a theme here); this post was apparently very popular amongst video game aficionados and developers, for some reason.

Dragon
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

 

4.  Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style: I actually attempted a memento mori costume the year I wrote this post.  It was not entirely successful.

Memento
Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r

 

3.  Bugs in Books: I’ll just quote Pliny here on the subject of insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’ 

Bugs
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

 

2.  Knight v Snail: a casual conversation in our manuscripts store led to one of the most popular blog posts across the British Library, and a lot of interest in this enduring mystery. 

Snail
Knight and snail from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r

 

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  there's nothing else that deserves the number one spot!

Unicorn
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r)

Thank you all for everything, and here’s to many more happy years exploring medieval manuscripts!

-  Sarah J Biggs

07 January 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Ships

In 2013 we were pleased to tell you about a ‘new life’ for one of our Royal manuscripts:  a banner-sized detail of a 15th century mappa mundi, which originally greeted visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, was repurposed to brilliant effect by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey.

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Installation View:  detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate

But the story doesn’t end there.  Following its sojourn in the heady realm of contemporary art, the banner came home with me.  It made its way onto the wall of my infant daughter’s nursery, so that from a very early age she would be able to contemplate the important things in life (mappae mundi and medieval manuscript illumination, basically). 

BA Map in Eleanor's room
Over the course of the many many hours I spent in the nursery, I spent a lot of time staring at this vastly magnified painting.  And I soon noticed something interesting. 

But first a bit of background.  This miniature can be found at the beginning of Book 15 of a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ encyclopaedia, De proprietatibus rerum.  Angelicus’s text, a compliation of theology, natural history, and science, was a bestseller, by medieval standards.  A century after it was written, De proprietatibus rerum  was translated into French, and illuminated copies began to be produced.  Royal MS 15 E III is a lavish copy, produced in Bruges in 1485, which may have once belonged to Edward IV.

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Detail of a tripartite mappa mundi, from a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, Bruges, 1482, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v

Book 15 of Angelicus’s text is called ‘On the provinces and countries’ and discusses Isidore of Seville’s division of the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Most maps depicting this division show east at the top of the map (the origins of our term ‘to orient’), but the miniature above is interesting in that Asia shares the top space with Africa.  It is also unusual amongst maps of its type by depicting the three lands as mountainous landscapes, full of castles and rivers. 

It is in these rivers, though, that we can begin to see something odd – at least, the rivers in the Africa section.  At first glance it appears that there are no ships to be found in Africa, unlike Asia and Europe.  But a closer inspection reveals that there are ships, or rather, there were ships at one time.

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Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with ‘disappearing’ ships circled in red.

Three of these ships are visible (circled in red above), ghostly and barely present.  Examining the manuscript itself indicates that what we are seeing are most likely the original underdrawings, which were strangely emphasised in pigment but never fully painted.  The outlines of these ‘disappearing’ ships were painted over with the river landscapes, but are now visible. 

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Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with two black figures.

Also of interest in the Africa section are the only two inhabitants of the map: the outsized figures of two black men standing against a rocky outcrop.  Both figures appear to have been repainted (at least in part) to alter their positions; this is particularly visible in the way their arms are depicted.  It is possible, though far from certain, that these two men were not part of the original design but were added when the miniature was painted.

It is always a challenge to interpret such manuscript mysteries.  Were the Africa ships included in the original design in error and then corrected by the painter?  Was this only a simple design change?  Or were the ships removed at some point during the design process as part of an effort to make Africa appear more foreign, less civilised?  And how do the figures of the two black men – the only humans in evidence on the map – relate?

As always, we’re grateful for any ideas or suggestions you may have.  You can comment below, or reach us at Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

05 January 2016

Bald's Leechbook Now Online

The current Anglo-Saxon Digitisation project covers a wide range of manuscripts, from Psalters to letters to lawcodes to schoolbooks to medical remedies. We are pleased to announce that, for the first time, Bald’s Leechbook—a collection of medical remedies, recipes, diagnostic guides, and charms, copied in the mid-10th century—is now available online.  Bald’s Leechbook has long fascinated scholars, and it recently made headlines after a team in Nottingham discovered that one of its recipes—for a poultice for an infected eye— can combat the superbug MRSA. For more information on this discovery, read our blogpost 'A Medieval Medical Marvel'.

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing a recipe for an eye salve.
Recipe for an eye salve, from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 12v

Bald’s Leechbook is also interesting for its references to elves (about which more later), its prognostic about the ‘Dog Days’, and its compiler[s] use of Greek medical sources and more local medical sources, among other things.  It even includes a discussion of an early plastic surgery to fix a cleft palate, as well as cures for both impotence and lustfulness – very useful, indeed.

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing a cure for a harelip or cleft palate.
Cure for a harelip (haer-sceard), or cleft palate, involving a description of early plastic surgery, from Bald's Leechbook, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 20v

A page from Bald's Leechbook, showing cures for overly lustful and impotent men.
Cures for an overly lustful (wraene) man and for an impotent man, from Bald's Leechbook, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 54v

An expanded discussion of the subject can be found in our post Anglo-Saxon Medicine, and please click over to Digitised Manuscripts to have a closer look at Bald’s Leechbook!