Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from June 2016

30 June 2016

Greek Manuscripts in the British Library: Conference and Public Lecture in September

To mark the completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the launch of the Greek Manuscripts Online web resource, the British Library is hosting a one-day conference devoted to Greek Manuscripts on 19 September, 2016. Confirmed participants include Sebastian Brock (Oxford), Charalambos Dendrinos (Royal Holloway), Elizabeth Jeffreys (Oxford), Charlotte Roueché (King’s College London), Maria Georgopoulou (Gennadius Library, Athens) and Giorgi Parpulov (Plovdiv, Bulgaria). Speakers will discuss a variety of topics related to the Library’s digitised Greek collections, such as Greek-Syriac palimpsests, Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, Greek written culture and the digital humanities and the cultural interactions between Greece and Britain.

Page from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 36r

The conference will be accompanied by an evening lecture by Michael Wood on ‘The Wisdom of the Greeks’. Michael will be looking at how the legacy of Greece and Byzantium in science, religion and literature was transmitted to the Latin West. Fascinating stories about texts and ideas, scribes and scholars will come to life in the course of this illustrated talk that will include Anglo-Saxon kings, Crusader knights and Renaissance humanists - and even a well-known Elizabethan dramatist!

Please book your place in advance and register online at . The full programme can be found here:  Download British Library Greek Conference Schedule.

~Peter Toth

28 June 2016

Tips for a Manuscripts Road Trip

With the long vacation about to begin, the sun shining (sometimes), and the temperature reliably in the double digits throughout the day, medievalists everywhere are turning their minds towards spending time in manuscript libraries. How can you spend the fleeting hours efficiently, while leaving enough time for getting a sunburn?

Detail of Boethius in his library, from Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion, Bourges, 1477, Harley MS 4335, f. 1r

Know Your Library

Well before you visit a library, contact it to confirm that the material you want to examine is available on the dates you want to visit. Items can sometimes be on display at an exhibition, on loan, in conservation, or at the photographic studio. If in doubt, contact [email protected] for British Library manuscripts. Check that we haven’t already digitized the manuscript; we’re putting up new material every day.

Especially during the summer, be sure to look into whether your library will be closed for an obscure holiday. Some small libraries close for a lunch break. Note that you’ll often be asked to leave a quarter of an hour before the stated closing time.

Most libraries require you to order items in advance, which is best done at least a day before; you don’t want to be stuck waiting for your book to show up. You’ll need to get a reader pass to visit the British Library and most other specialized libraries, for which there are sometimes unusual requirements. You don’t want to travel only to discover that you didn’t bring sufficient identification to be admitted.

  1. Proof of address. Since you’ll be working with some highly valuable materials, you’ll need an official proof of address to get a reader pass at the British Library. If you don’t have an identity card with your address, be sure to bring something that matches it.
  2. A reference letter. Most manuscripts libraries require you to bring a recent letter of reference briefly indicating any institutional affiliation you might have and experience with handling special-collections material. This should be printed on official letterhead. Ideally, bring one to give to every library you visit.
Bel Accueil (Fair Welcome) looking at her reflection in a mirror while la Vieille (the Duenna) admires, from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c.1490–1500, Harley 4425, f. 114r 
  1. Passport-sized photos. The friendly British Library staff will take your photograph; some smaller libraries ask you to bring one or two photos to attach to a card. Hint: there are now many websites that will correctly crop a photo to the specifications for different countries.
  2. A one-pound coin. You can only bring materials into the reading room that fit in a clear plastic bag. At most libraries in the UK, you get a locker key in return for a coin. Don’t worry: you’ll get it back when you return the key, and you can spend it on a nice cup of tea as you leave on your last day.

In planning your trip, don’t forget to take care of yourself: some libraries can be very cold (especially old college and cathedral libraries during the winter). The British Library has on-site restaurants and cafés, but in other cases you’ll want to bring sufficient provender to get you through the day without wasting time looking for food.

Bring the Right Gear

Think carefully about your research questions before you go to the library, and what you’ll need to answer them. Many successful trips to the reading room can be made with nothing more than a method to record notes. But life can sometimes be made easier with a few simple tools:

Schaedler Ruler
A ruler marked for millimetres (hovering over Harley MS 649, f. 137r)
  1. A ruler. This is the most important part of the manuscript scholar’s toolkit. It’s surprisingly difficult to obtain a ruler truly suited to codicological work. Manuscripts are always measured in millimetres, regardless of their size; this means that one almost never needs to worry about decimals or fractions while achieving an appropriate level of accuracy, while saving time by leaving out the units from one’s notes. Unfortunately, many rulers are still marked only in centimetres, making it difficult to read the smaller increments. The fastest and most accurate rulers number individual millimetres. Even better is a ruler that marks half millimetres; when measuring scripts, this can improve one’s understanding of how different pages were ruled or written. Since parchment is rarely flat, a flexible ruler that can be rolled up when on the move is key for any serious work studying page layout or scripts. A ruler around 500 millimetres long is sufficient for the majority of manuscripts.
  2. A pencil and paper. Special collections libraries ban pens. Many lend out pencils, but these are often too short for extended writing; bring your own, plus a pencil sharpener. Even if you’re using a laptop, you don’t want to be stuck if the battery suddenly dies.
  3. A camera. It’s sometimes fastest to take a picture and make more detailed notes on it later. Recognizing that this reduces wear on collections, an increasing number of libraries allow photography of their items (including the British Library, for non-restricted manuscripts). But be careful about relying on this: many reading rooms are too dim to obtain a clear picture of a page of handwritten text with a typical point-and-shoot camera. Even with a higher-end camera, text can be unreadable, necessitating another visit. The most cost-effective option is often to ask for a copy from Imaging Services, which produces extraordinarily clear photographs; and if you order an entire manuscript, you’ll also be doing the entire world a favour, since this allows us to make it available through Digitized Manuscripts. If you’re set on taking your own photos, be aware that many libraries ban noisy SLR cameras. The ideal camera for most researchers is a quiet midrange mirrorless camera attuned to low light. Go for the largest image sensor available, as this is key for getting clear pictures of text (an APS-C sensor is a reasonable expectation with today’s technology and on a scholar’s budget). It’s also useful to have a lens hood, to cut down on the glare from the fluorescent lights and ensure you don’t get too close to the book.
  4. A magnifying glass. Optional, depending on your eyesight and research questions. One can often be borrowed from reading rooms.
  5. A small electric torch. When studying a writing surface, whether parchment or a typeset page, a raking light can reveal many details. Be sure to use an LED light, since these produce less heat; and be careful not to blind other readers!
Saving a book from hellfire, Anglo-Saxon miscellany, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

Be Nice to Your Manuscripts

Handling a manuscript is like caring for a small child. They can sometimes be surprisingly tough, but they can also do unexpected things behind your back and get hurt easily.

Falconia with her books, from Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 C V, f. 147v

Always use appropriate book stands: don’t always work with the one that happens to be on your desk, but look around the reading room first to see what is available. The foam wedges that are now becoming common are available in four different sizes: if you don’t find what you need, or you’re not sure how to use the stands correctly, the reading room staff will be more than happy to lend a hand.

Collection Care at the British Library has a series of films showing how to use items properly; even experienced researchers are sometimes surprised to find that they’ve been using book stands incorrectly for decades. We also have a series of guidance booklets on conservation.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

23 June 2016

From the Louvre's Library to the Treasures Gallery

In 1364 the French king, Charles V (b. 1338, d. 1380) set about constructing a new library in the Louvre, which had hitherto been a fortress and was now a royal palace. He chose an old falconry tower, removed the birds and created a splendid library. What was a loss for the birds and their keepers was a gain for the literary culture of France.

The opening page of the second volume of a Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 1r. A lion playing with some monkeys is depicted at the bottom of the page. Lions were the favourite animal of Charles V who owned more than ten of them in his menagerie. 

The construction of the library reveals the king’s strategy and shows how Charles differed from the monarchs that preceded him. He was a bibliophile king, as well as a highly political one. A well-furnished library containing splendid illuminated manuscripts could serve a wider political and cultural agenda and the construction of the library was part of a project to promote the French language and to make Paris both a seat of learning and an administrative hub. As in the case of other royal libraries, it is possible to see the luxurious manuscripts produced for him as an expression of the public persona of their owner.

Charles reigned during the period of the Hundred Years War, a time of external threat and instability. In locating his court in Paris, in the newly modernised Louvre, he intended to centralise the workings of the court to better respond to the military threat posed by the English forces. Part of that consolidation was the promotion of the French language.

To fill his library, Charles commissioned the copying of a large number of volumes as well as new translations of particular works. The library was organised on three floors. The most precious manuscripts, mainly in French, and the new translations were kept on the first floor. On the second floor, there were the prose romances, medical books, manuscripts of the Roman de la rose and other poems. Latin books, encyclopaedias, theological books and books of science and astronomy occupied the third floor. The library was open to his counsellors, prestigious visitors and members of the court. In 1380, the library contained over 900 manuscripts and 2500 texts in French.

An apostle preaching, from Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 217v

A beautiful bible, probably owned by Charles V, has recently gone on display in our Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The manuscript (Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) is an illustrated, French version of the Bible, known as a Bible historiale. Now bound in two volumes, it was made in 1356-57, either for Charles V or for his father John the Good, king of France (1350-1364).  The Bible historiale was not the first translation of Scriptures in a vernacular language but it was one of the best-sellers of this genre. The Bible historiale was compiled by Guyart des Moulins, canon and dean of St Pierre, Aire-sur-la-Lys Artois, between 1291 and 1297 who blended his own translation of a 12th-century scholastic text, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor, with a translation of the Vulgate.

The Bible historiale was popular in royal and noble collections from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards. Manuscripts of the Bible historiale, like this copy, were expensive to produce because of their size and magnificent decoration. John the Good owned a Bible historiale captured in Poitiers in 1356 (now held at the British Library as Royal MS 19 D II), while his son, Charles V, owned at least seven! 

Royal 19 D II f. 155
Detail of the death of David and the crowning of Solomon, from the Bible historiale of John the Good, France (Paris), c. 1350-1356, Royal MS 19 D II, f. 155r

Though the Bible historiale in the Treasures Gallery is not mentioned in the extant inventories of Charles V’s library, it appears highly likely that he once owned it. The quality of the decoration indicates that these volumes were intended for an aristocratic patron. The miniatures are attributed to the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, who worked for both John the Good and Charles V. Each biblical book opens with a large miniature, a decorative border. There are two large one-column miniatures respectively at the beginning of the first volume and second volume: the first volume begins with a preface illustrated by the Trinity and the second volume begins with the Proverbs illustrated by Solomon’s life.

The Trinity surrounded by the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1
, f. 1r

After his death in 1380, Charles V’s library began to be dispersed. In 1424, John, duke of Bedford, regent of France (1389-1435) bought this library for a low price and moved it to Rouen. According to Jenny Stratford, the duke of Bedford acquired this highly symbolic library in order to create a magnificent court and especially to promote the English king’s claim on French crown. When he died in 1435, the library moved to London where it was dispersed another time. However our Bible historiale followed a different path: they were acquired by Thomas Langton, bishop of Winchester (1493-1501) who was sent to France for diplomatic missions in 1467 and 1485. The Bible historiale would become an English royal book under Charles II, three centuries later.

Royal 17 E vii vol1 f 247r David bells
David playing the bells, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 247r

Looking at the remaining books of Charles’ library today-- whether in person in the Treasures Gallery or online on Digitised Manuscripts-- we catch a glimpse of the king himself.  We get a sense of a political strategist and a bookish king who – according to Christine de Pizan –liked to read until dinner in a private study he had created, next to his library.

~Laure Miolo

 Further Reading:

On Charles V’s library, see: Léopold Delisle, Recherches sur la librairie de Charles V, 2 vols (Paris: H. Champion, 1907). François Avril, Jean Lafaurie, Marcel Thomas (eds.), La Librairie de Charles V (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1968).

Jenny Stratford, The Bedford Inventories. The Worldly Goods of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1993), pp. 55-97.


21 June 2016

Maps, Monsters and Marvels

In the second series of the American television programme The West Wing, the White House is lobbied by a fictitious group of cartographers to promote a new map of the world. They suggest a map which uses the Gall-Peters projection and puts South at the top of the map and North at the bottom. While the characters in the television series reject the ‘South-up’ map as too radical, it is actually quite an old idea: in fact, a map contained in a spectacular 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which has been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts this week, shows that the idea of putting South-East at the top is at least a thousand years old.

Map of the world, from a scientific miscellany, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

This map—the earliest known attempt to depict the topography of the British Isles—features Britain in the bottom left corner of the world. (This can be viewed more easily using the zoom feature on Digitised Manuscripts.)

Detail of the British Isles, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

The map was copied in the mid-11th century, but some scholars suggest that it may have been based on a Roman world map.

Perseus and Medusa, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 34r

The map is contained in a scientific miscellany (Cotton Tiberius B V/1), which was probably made in the south of England in the mid-11th century. Both Canterbury and Winchester have been suggested as its place of origin.

Argo, from Cicero’s Aratea, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 40v

This volume is full of practical texts and fantastical images. Its contents include a calendar; a copy of an archbishop’s itinerary to Rome; lists of bishops, emperors, and kings; Ælfric’s De temporibus anni; a Macrobian zonal map; prayers; texts on the sun and the moon; Cicero’s Aratea; and Priscian’s Periegesis.

Lertices with asses' ears, sheep's wool and birds' feet and Blemmya, a headless man with face in his torso, from the Marvels of the East, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

This volume also contains an illuminated copy of the Marvels of the East, a text which described the creatures who were said to live in the faraway lands depicted on the map.

Miniature of Mambres contemplating Hell, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

In the 12th century, a Life of St Nicholas and some notes relating to Battle Abbey were added to the manuscript. The volume also contains a series of documents related to Ely, Cambridgeshire and Exeter that were probably added to the volume in the early modern period.  

Regulations of the thegns' guild at Cambridge, from an addition to an 8th-century Gospel-book, England (Ely), late 10th century,  Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 74r

This magnificent manuscript gives unparalleled insights into a variety of aspects of early English history, from the reception of classical texts to conceptions of topography to rare depictions of agricultural practices to imaginings of marvels and monsters.

Calendar page for June, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f.5v

Whether you are lobbying for a new map or are just curious about what Anglo-Saxons did in June, do have a look at Cotton Tiberius B V/1 on Digitised Manuscripts: there is a lot to discover.

~Alison Hudson

16 June 2016

Internship in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a post-graduate or post-doctoral student in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or other relevant subject.

Harley 13   f. 3
Decorated initial, diagram, and bar border with a human hybrid grotesque at the beginning of an anonymous text on planetary theory, from a collection of scientific treatises, France (Paris), c. 1250-1325, Harley MS 13, f. 3r

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue, by creating catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts from the Harley collection. In addition, the intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.  Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time. 

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 9 months.  The salary is £9.40 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start in October 2016 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit

Applicants are asked to include answers to the following questions within their Supporting Statement:

  1. Please give examples of your experience in cataloguing medieval manuscripts. 
  2. Please provide examples of your experience in writing about your research for a general audience.

Closing Date: 15th July 2016

Interviews will be held on 16 August. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

Intern in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

Salary is £9.40 per hour (London Living Wage)

Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)

Fixed Term for 9 months

St Pancras, London

Start date in October 2016

~Kathleen Doyle


14 June 2016

Manuscript and Print in Renaissance Venice

2015 was the 500th anniversary of the death of the Venetian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius whose publications changed perceptions of printed books and of the book trade in general both for his contemporaries and for future generations.  The anniversary was celebrated all over the world with exhibitions and conferences; a latecomer to these celebrations  – but well worth waiting for – is an exhibition in Venice's main art gallery, the Gallerie dell’Accademia:  Aldo Manuzio. Il Rinascimento di Venezia.  Curated by art historians as well as manuscripts and printed books specialists, it looks at Aldus and his publishing firm from an unusual perspective – in the context of the visual arts in Venice during his career in the city (from the 1490s to 1515).  The exhibition does not merely illustrate Aldus’s career and the circle of associates he built up, with portraits of his patrons and collaborators, but also tries, through the manuscripts and printed books on display, to explore his interest in the visual appearance of his editions, his concern for order, regularity and harmony in typeface and page layout, reflecting the theoretical interests of Renaissance art, in Italy above all, in mathematical relations and proportional ratios.   

Hypnerotomachia m5r (Ceres)Add_ms_11355_f023r
Right: Woodcut of Ceres or the goddess of harvest, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Aldi Manutii: Venetiis, 1499 Venice, G.10564, f. m5r

 Left: Detail of Ceres, from the works of Virgil, Italy, 1499-1502, Additional MS 11355, f. 23r

The manuscript tradition was very important for Aldus.  The texts in Greek and Latin which he published  - as well as the vernacular classics such as Petrarch and Dante - were based on intense philological study of their manuscript transmission.  But manuscripts were also a source and a resource for his sense of how a printed book should ideally look.  Both of the innovations he famously introduced in 1501 - the small portable octavo format for editions of the classics (for which he used the Greek term enchiridia, literally ‘hand books’, books small and light enough to be held in one hand) and the italic typeface, with the fluency and elegance of cursive script, used for the texts – were inspired by manuscript production, as Aldus himself tells us in the prefaces he wrote to his editions. 

Two of the manuscripts which the British Library has lent to the exhibition reveal connections with Aldus’s most famous – and also most uncharacteristic – publication, the strange Hypnerotomachia Poliphili which he published in 1499 on commission.  The standard English translation of the title is Love’s Strife in a Dream of Poliphilus and the book recounts, in a curious hybrid of Latin and Italian, the adventures of the lover Poliphilus in search of his beloved. His journey is full of classical allusions and motifs – monuments, temples and triumphal arches, statues, urns and obelisks, all decorated with invented inscriptions in Latin and Greek; the book is also copiously illustrated with 172 woodcuts renowned for their artistic quality, although the anonymous artist responsible for the designs has never been definitively identified, the most plausible candidate being the Venetian Benedetto Bordon.   The whole book in fact has remained a mystery – its authorship, its meaning, and, not least, why Aldus took the commission on, given its remoteness from the interests and priorities of his publishing programme.  In contrast with his other editions, the fact that it was published by him is almost hidden away, consisting of a single brief reference in the colophon; despite this reticence, however, he made the book into one of the greatest masterpieces of book design of all time. 

Page from Silloge, in the third recension (ff. 4-245), Italy (Padua?), c. 1502-1510, Stowe MS 1016, f. 127r

Hypnerotomachia q8r (tabella)
Epigraphic tablet, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Aldi Manutii: Venetiis, 1499 Venice, G.10564, f. q8r

One of the models for the numerous invented classical inscriptions found in the Hypnerotomachia could have been the Veronese architect and antiquarian Giovanni Giocondo’s manuscript collection of actual inscriptions, begun in the 1470s.  There are three versions of the compilation surviving in seventeen manuscripts; the British Library manuscript on display, Stowe 1016, on vellum, is the third and final version, copied by the greatest of all calligraphic scribes in Renaissance Italy, Bartolomeo Sanvito.  There is a possibility that Aldus knew Sanvito, who worked in nearby Padua, and that he was influenced in his choice of typeface design by Sanvito’s scripts, renowned for the elegance of their design and their sense of proportion.  An anthology of authentic classical inscriptions such as Giocondo’s in Sanvito’s presentation must surely have been in Aldus’s mind in designing the page layout of the Hypnerotomachia. 

A more direct connection can be found in the second British Library manuscript on show in the exhibition, the works of Virgil, Additional MS 11355, dated 1499-1502, copied by the humanist scholar Giuliano Ceci (with rubric capitals again by Bartolomeo Sanvito).  The image of the Roman goddess of Ceres in the initial letter of the Georgics in this manuscript and the image found in the Hypnerotomachia show that the unidentified illuminator of the manuscript, possibly Benedetto Bordon himself, must have also belonged to the group of artists and engravers working on the Aldine edition.  

Page from the works of Virgil, Italy, 1499-1502, Additional MS 11355, f. 23r

Hypnerotomachia m5r (Ceres)
Page with woodcut of Ceres or the goddess of harvest, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Aldi Manutii: Venetiis, 1499 Venice, G.10564, f. m5r

These tantalising glimpses of resemblances and affinities (for more details see the contributions of Laura Nuvoloni and Helene Szépe in the exhibition catalogue, also published in an English version) reveal that Aldus, whose production of illustrated editions over his twenty-year publishing career was extremely limited, did have connections with contemporary Venetian artists and that his concern for the design and arrangement of illustrations in a printed book equalled his interest in the correctness and legibility of texts. 

The British Library is delighted to have loaned these precious manuscripts and books to the exhibition Aldo Manuzio. Il Rinascimento di Venezia, open until the end of July 2016.  It is hoped that putting them alongside other works of art, manuscripts and printed books from the period and from collections all over the world will stimulate new research into their  cultural cross-connections and into Aldus’s links to the world of the visual arts in Renaissance Venice.

 ~Stephen Parkin

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

Add_ms_19896_f008v Add_ms_19896_f009r

Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f023v Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f024r

The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

Tweet add_ms_24199_f012r
Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

04 June 2016

Name this creature!

As a variation on our Caption Competition, we have decided to set another challenge for our readers. Here is an image of one of the more unlikely creatures we have come across recently:

Harley_ms_4372_f182r detail
Detail of a hybrid creature on crutches with a begging bowl next to a vine, from Les Fais et Dis des Romains, Rouen, c. 1460-1487, Harley MS 4372, f. 182r

It is from a copy of Les Fais et Dis des Romains¸ a French version of the Latin work, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia by Valerius Maximus, which is a collection of ‘memorable deeds and sayings’, gleaned by the author from classical and other sources and handily arranged in themes such as religion and unseemly conduct, for easy reference. This creature is found in a border of one of the full-page images that mark the beginning of each of the 9 books in one of the copies in our collections, Harley MS 4372 and 4373: the manuscript is very large and has been divided into two volumes. These are currently being digitised in full along with a six-volume set of the same work. Harley MS 4374, vols 1-3 and Harley MS 4375, vols 1-3. There are currently a selection of images from these manuscripts online in CIM.

Miniature of soldiers and courtiers paying homage to the emperor, with a dog in the foreground, and full border with hybrid creatures, one being on crutches with a begging bowl by a vine, from Harley MS 4372, f. 182r

We invite you to find a name for the creature from the margin. The name can be as long or as short as you want to make it. The winner will be chosen and results will be published on the blog in a few days.

~Chantry Westwell