Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

15 posts from August 2016

14 August 2016

Caption Competition 7

Oh, go on then. If you must. You know it never hurt anyone.

Here is today's caption competition. We'd love to hear your suggestions, tweeted to @BLMedieval or left as a comment below this post. Go on, be bold, be brave!

We'll retweet our favourites ... No prizes, except the warm glow of seeing your name on, er, Twitter. How good does it get?


You can see more of this manuscript, in full and for free, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site (Harley MS 3244).

12 August 2016

Pokémon Go! The Medieval Edition


Over the past few weeks, a certain new game has been captivating worldwide interest. It’s not a new Olympic sport or an updated version of Angry Birds, it’s the legendary Pokémon Go! Young and old alike have been out on the streets, climbing up trees and exploring unknown places. With their smartphone in hand, players have been tracking down rare creatures and capturing them inside Pokeballs.

It is traditionally thought that Pikachu, Squirtle and their comrades originated in Japan in the 1990s. However, revolutionary research by the Medieval Manuscripts section has unearthed some familiar scenes among the British Library's collections.


The Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

Pokémon are characterised by their hybrid appearance, bright colours and distinctive qualities. Many medieval manuscripts are also filled with similarly fantastical creatures. A manuscript in the collection here at the British Library which contains an astounding variety of creatures within its margins is the Rutland Psalter. Produced in the 13th century, the manuscript is filled with many weird and wonderful depictions of men, women, real and imagined animals, hybrids and dragons. Many of these creatures could today easily be mistaken for Pokémon.


The Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 44r


The Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 59r

The marginalia in the Rutland Psalter were heavily influenced by the traditions of the Marvels of the East. An extensively illustrated copy of the Marvels of the East, recently uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site, contains a variety of marvellous creatures. This griffen-esque character would surely make an extremely fearsome Pokémon!


The Marvels of the East, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 86v

In the game, a player can catch a Pokémon by throwing a Pokeball towards it and hoping that the Pokeball encases the creature, much like this purple clothed figure appears to be doing!


The Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 145r

There is much mystery surrounding what happens to Pokémon once they are encased within the Pokeball. Perhaps they are shrunk down to a faction of their size and float peacefully within the ball, much like the creatures depicted in this 13th-century bestiary.


A medieval bestiary, Harley MS 4751, f. 62r

The map which guides players through the simultaneously real and imagined world of Pokémon Go is not too dissimilar to the pilgrimage itinerary maps drawn by Matthew Paris. These maps were primarily designed to guide an imagined pilgrimage to Jerusalem, rather than a functional map to be carried by a traveller. One could argue that this is similar to the use of ‘virtual reality’ maps in games such as Pokémon Go today.


Itinerary to Jerusalem, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

Pokémon Go is not just about catching the Pokémon; it’s also about training them, and battling against other players and their own Pokémon. One of the most frequently illustrated battles in medieval manuscripts is that between a knight and his eternal enemy, the snail. If snails were a kind of Pokémon, they would be among the most elusive and hard to catch of all. Perhaps it’s their hard shell, agile antenna, or slimy trail; who knows?! For a full chronicle of the enduring battle between knights and snails, see our legendary blogpost.


The Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r 

The Medieval Manuscripts team wishes you the best of luck in your endeavours to ‘catch them all’!


A juggler in a gradual, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v

Becky Lawton


10 August 2016

Leontion, 'Little Prostitute' or 'Great Philosopher'

Followers of our Twitter account may remember an image we posted a few months ago on #InternationalHugAMedievalistDay, showing a woman being interrupted from her reading by a man trying to embrace her. It turns out that the story behind the image involves ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, female intellectuals, Epicureans, misogyny and, possibly, prostitution.

Royal 20 C V f 96v
Don't interrupt someone reading, even on #InternationalHugAMedievalistDay! Detail of Leontion, from
Des cleres et nobles femmes, anonymous French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, Paris, c. 1400-1425, Royal MS 20 C V, f. 96v

The woman depicted in this image is Leontion (fl. 300 BC), a female Epicurean philosopher from Ancient Greece. Leontion’s own writings have now been lost. A fragment of a letter addressed to her from her mentor Epicurus (341-270 BC) survives to suggest her learning and her importance in the Epicurean school of philosophy. Apart from that, little is known of her. She may have been the companion of another Epicurean philosopher, Metrodorus. Later sources claimed she was a hetaerae, or courtesan, although there is no way now to verify this claim. Nevertheless, although few sources about Leontion survive, she remained famous for centuries after her death for criticising a rival philosopher, Theophrastus (d. c. 287 BC), who was Aristotle's successor as teacher at the Lyceum.

Some later writers were aghast at this incident. In De natura deorum, Cicero (106 BC-43 BC) decried the ‘little prostitute’ who challenged the great Theoprastus (although he admitted her Attic Greek was good). Others admired Leontion: the Alexandrian teacher Aelius Theon (fl. c. 50 AD) portrayed her in his Progymnasmata as a prime example of someone from a low social class who achieved great things.

Even as late as the 14th century, Leontion was still making waves when Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) included her in his Book of Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), a collection of 106 short biographies of famous and infamous women. The image of Leontion which we tweeted comes from an early 15th-century manuscript of a French translation of the Book of Famous Women (Royal MS 20 C V), one of several copies of that work and its later translations which are held at the British Library.

Royal 16 G V   f. 3v
Miniature depicting  Boccaccio reading a book, Boccaccio presenting the book to Andrea Acciaiuoli and a group of women, a messenger presenting a letter to a lady, and a queen with four women playing musical instruments, with a full border and a foliate initial 'I',
from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus Claris in an anonymous French translation, Rouen, c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 74r 

In his account of Leontion’s life, Boccaccio acknowledged her immense learning and intelligence. Nevertheless, he seems to have regarded her more as a negative example to be avoided than a positive example to emulate. Boccaccio disparaged Leontion for criticising Theophrastus, arguing that her criticism was ‘a clear sign of an envious disposition’, although he admitted he had never seen Leontion’s writings himself to judge the content of her argument. Boccaccio also repeated the suggestion that Leontion was a prostitute, or at least wanton. Whereas some Late Antique authors interpreted rumours about Leontion’s past as a courtesan as proof that she rose to prominence from a humble background, Boccaccio claimed that Leontion must have been downwardly socially mobile. He argued that Leontion must have come from a noble family and later debased herself, because, as far as he was concerned, all clever people were born to noble families. The artists of manuscripts of the British Library’s French translations of the Book of Famous Women presented Leontion’s suitor as a distraction from her studies (even if Leontion’s gestures in some of the images might suggest to modern viewers that she was resisting the distraction).

Royal 16 G V   f. 74
Detail of Leontion or Léonce, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 74r 

Debates over Leontion’s reputation, and the correctness of her argument, became a proxy for wider debates about women writers in late medieval western Europe. The poet Jean de Montreuil’s criticism of Leontion, in particular, may have been a thinly veiled attack on his contemporary female rival, Christine de Pizan (1364-1430).

Harley 4431   f. 4
Detail of Christine de Pizan in her study, from the Book of the Queen, Paris, c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r 

Christine herself, however, was more positive in her appraisal of Leontion. In her City of Ladies (which may have used Boccaccio’s Book of Famous Women as a source), she characterized Leontion as ‘a great philosopher’ who quite rightly corrected Theophrastus for ‘serious reasons’.

Later imaginings of Leontion, from the Late Antique period to the later Middle Ages and beyond, were as variable and diverse as opinions on the place of women writers. The idea that Leontion was a courtesan could be interpreted as an admirable rags-to-riches story or as a deplorable failure of her education. Leontion’s criticism of a male thinker left her open to charges of impertinence, but was also viewed as an inspiration by later female writers. On one point everyone seems to have agreed: even the most critical portrayals of Leontion were obliged to acknowledge her intelligence. At the very least, medieval writers were impressed that they were still talking about Leontion, in some cases more than a millennium after her death. Boccaccio concluded, the ‘fame [of Leontion’s writing] has lasted throughout the centuries down to our own age; hence, we cannot say that the work was a trifle or showed a lack of ability’ (translated by Virginia Brown, Famous Women (Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 124).

Alison Hudson


08 August 2016

True Colours

Our friends at the Fitzwilliam Museum have recently opened a spectacular new exhibition, called Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. This exhibition showcases some of the Fitzwilliam's greatest manuscript treasures, integrated with scientific and art historical research into medieval painting materials and techniques.

The British Library is delighted to have been able to loan four of our own manuscripts to this show, which is open until 30 December 2016. We highly recommend that you make a special journey to Cambridge to view the exhibition, and to take in all these manuscripts in their breath-taking glory.


Add MS 5112, f. 134r: St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century)

This astonishingly beautiful miniature depicts St John the Evangelist, about to sharpen his quill with a knife while a blank codex rests on his lap. This is a particularly fine example of painting with gold leaf; the vermilion red and ultramarine blue of the drapery make a sharp contrast with the gold leaf, and help to distinguish between the gold background and the yellow building in the lower half of the portrait. The miniature itself was not created for the volume in which it was found, and the high quality of the materials and the painting technique strongly suggests a Constantinopolitan origin.


St John the Evangelist, from a gospel book (Byzantium, late 12th century): Add MS 5112, f. 134r


Harley MS 3915: Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century)

This medieval craft treatise contains instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking, as well as pigment recipes and painting instructions for manuscript illumination. The pages shown below describe the manufacture of 'salt green' followed by 'Spanish green', both of which are types of verdigris; next come the production methods for lead white (cerosa) and red lead (minium). Harley 3915 is the most complete and one of the oldest surviving copies of this treatise, the script and ornament of which suggest that it was made somewhere in North-West Germany. We had it digitised a few years ago as part of our Harley Science Project.

Harley_ms_3915_f018v   Harley_ms_3915_f019r

Making green, white and red pigments, in Theophilus, De diversis artibus (NW Germany?, late 12th or early 13th century): Harley MS 3915, ff. 18v–19r 


Sloane MS 1975: A medical and herbal collection (France or England, late 12th century)

This medical treatise concludes with a series of illustrations of medical procedures. The spots represent cautery points, showing doctors where to apply hot irons to treat patients suffering from ailments such as toothache, fever and kidney disease. On the second page shown here, not for the squeamish, are operations to excise haemorrhoids, a nasal growth and cataracts. This manuscript belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Ourscamp in the 14th century, and it later entered the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Sloane_ms_1975_f092v   Sloane_ms_1975_f093r
Cautery points, in a medical collection (France or England, late 12th century): Sloane MS 1975, ff. 92v–93r)


Harley MS 4336: Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476)

Produced in Bourges in 1476, this manuscript of Boethius's famous treatise, De consolatio philosophiae, is displayed open with this allegorical figure of Fortune, identifiable by the gold letters f emblazoned on her garment. The figures that surround her may represent two different families, one blessed and one cursed by Fortune, or a once prosperous household that has fallen on hard times.

Harley MS 4336 f. 1v

Personification of Fortune, in Boethius, De consolatio philosophiae (Bourges, 1476): Harley MS 4336, f. 1v

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016.


05 August 2016

Medieval Selfies

It is tourist season here in London, so while dodging groups armed with selfie sticks and smart phones, it's easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist. (Apologies to anyone whose holiday photos have been accidentally photobombed by a befuddled British Library curator.) But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.

Self-portrait of John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, occultist and adviser to Elizabeth I, from a genealogical roll, England, late 16th or early 17th century, Cotton Ch XIV 1

The Oxford English Dictionary limits the definition of ‘selfie’ to ‘photographic self-portraits’. However, if we extend the definition of ‘selfie’ to cover self-portraits made with pen and ink, selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. One of the earliest known manuscript self-portraits to survive from England was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), in the 10th century. He depicted himself kneeling before Christ in a manuscript now known as ‘St Dunstan’s Classbook’ (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct F.4.32).

How can we tell if an image is a self-portrait? First, we can sometimes identify an artist by analysing brushstrokes, penwork, design or the accompanying handwriting, especially if the artist is well-known or worked on other manuscripts. However, even if we can identify the artist, how can we be sure that an image was intended as a self-portrait, rather than as an image of somebody else? This is where captions come in handy. Most known self-portraits are identified by nearby text which states or suggests that an image depicts its own artist.

Tw royal_ms_14_c_vii_f006r
Detail of a self-portrait of Matthew Paris with his name, from the prefatory material to Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum, St Albans, c. 1250-1259, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

For example, the image above is a self-portrait of the noted medieval writer, scribe, artist and polymath Matthew Paris. We have other manuscripts which are known to have been copied by Matthew Paris, so we can be confident that the first part of this manuscript contains his handwriting and drawing. He also conveniently labelled this self-portrait of him kneeling beneath the Virgin and child: ‘Frater Mathias Parisiensis’.

Self-portrait of Matthew Paris kneeling beneath the Virgin and child, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

Similarly, red letters next to two historiated initials in a 13th-century Book of Hours (Add MS 49999) identify the self-portraits of William de Brailes, the book’s artist. William and his workshop are important as some of the earliest known producers of books in England who were not based in a religious institution. Although his self-portraits portray him with a tonsure, William did not depict himself wearing the habit of a religious order, and legal documents from Oxford suggest that he was based at a workshop on Catte Street, at the centre of the Oxford book trade. If selfies never existed, we would know much less about this important figure in the history of book production, and about the way he presented himself.

  Tw add_ms_49999_f043r
Self-portrait of William de Brailes, from the de Brailes Hours, Oxford, c. 1240, Add MS 49999, f. 43r 

In other cases, unlabelled self-portraits have been identified with comparison to labelled self-portraits by the same artist. For example, some scholars claim the image below is a self-portrait of the artist John Siferwas or Cyfrewas (fl. 1380-1421) presenting a work to his patron John, Baron Lovell, because its features and content resemble a labelled self-portrait of Siferwas in the Sherborne Missal. Siferwas drew himself next to the Missal’s scribe, John Whas.

Harley 7026   f. 4v

Left: possible self-portrait of John Siferwas with John, Baron Lovell, from the Lovell Lectionary, Glastonbury?, c. 1400-1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 4v Right: self-portrait of John Siferwas with John Whas, from the Sherborne Missal, Sherborne, c. 1399-1407, Add MS 74236, f. 276v

Other medieval images could be self-portraits, but this is more difficult to prove. Some scholars have argued that the Eadui Psalter contains a self-portrait of its scribe and possible artist, Eadwig (also spelled Eadui) Basan. Eadwig (fl.1012-1023), a monk of Christ Church Canterbury, was one of the most talented Anglo-Saxon scribes, writing charters, the Grimbald Gospels and part of the Harley Psalter, among other works. That said, there is no agreement whether Eadwig really depicted himself in this Psalter and, if he did, which figure he is supposed to be.

Arundel 155   f. 133
Miniature of monks presenting the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict, with a prostrating figure, from the Eadui Psalter, Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1012-1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

Some believe the figure kneeling at Benedict’s feet might be a self-portrait of Eadwig. Others argue that the prostrate figure could be a patron or could simply have been copied from an earlier exemplar. Still other historians have argued that Eadwig appears as a member of the crowd presenting a book to Benedict. Nevertheless, some of these figures seem a little slim to be Eadwig: it has been suggested that Eadwig’s second name, basan, was derived from a Hebrew word for ‘the fat’.  Or maybe this was just a very flattering self-portrait!

Whereas modern selfie-takers are often stereotyped as vain and self-promoting, medieval selfies frequently involved a different type of self-promotion, one focused on humility before the divine and saints. In other contexts, medieval artists and writers emphasized the dangers of narcissism and of being too concerned with one’s own appearance. The story of Narcissus, the figure from Greek myth who became obsessed with his own reflection, was retold throughout the Middle Ages, notably in the Roman de la Rose

Harley 4425   f. 20
Detail of Narcissus, from the Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 20r 

So, you can see that self-portraiture is not strictly a modern phenomenon. If you come to the British Library’s current major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September 2016), you can even view a possible self-portrait of Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and King Lear.

Alison Hudson


03 August 2016

The Olympic Games at the British Library

No, we won’t be competing at the Rio Olympics and there won’t be any games or races at the British Library either! We just wanted to join in the growing anticipation as the 2016 Summer Olympics are about to begin by offering a fresh look at what our manuscripts tell us about the Olympic Games of the ancient world.

It is common knowledge that the Olympic Games are an ancient Greek tradition. But how close were these original games to what will be happening over the coming weeks in Rio? Our evidence for the ancient Olympics is scattered in various fragments, notes and remarks, many of which are held at the British Library.

The Greeks always had a special fascination with games and contests: they celebrated their gods, weddings and even funerals by organising athletic games.


Representation of a game in a circus from the 11th-century Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 127r

Every ancient Greek city, such as Delphi, Nemea and Isthmus, had their own festal games to honour their local gods, so those held at Olympia, first recorded in 776 BCE, were part of that tradition. The significance of the Olympia games increased with the fame of the local shrine of Zeus, which was honoured and celebrated by the races held there. The Games in Olympia were held every fourth year until AD 395, when the Emperor Theodosius issued an edict abolishing these last remnants of paganism.

Olympic winners held immense respect, receiving statues, coins and inscriptions dedicated in their names, besides being the recipients of plaudits by the leading poets of the time. Some victors and the sports in which they competed are recorded. It was Pindar (died 438 BCE), one of the most acclaimed Greek poets, who left us the most extensive Olympic poetry celebrating victorious runners, charioteers and wrestlers. However, it is not his subtle poetry but rather the marginal notes on his poems that convey the most precious details about the actual events at the ancient games.


Note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode, 15th century: Harley MS 1752, f. 126r

This little note on Pindar’s 12th Olympic Ode is a short biography of a Cretan runner called Ergoteles. Ergoteles won his event at the 76th Olympics in 472 BCE but, due to some obscure political treachery, he was forced to leave Crete. Re-patriated by the Sicilians, he won another Olympic title in 464 BCE.

In addition to such marginal notes, we also know of several ancient histories and novels that recorded and analysed the history of the games. These writings, like the two-volume history of the Olympic Games by a certain Phlegon or a summary by Aristotle himself, have not survived. Among the British Library's papyri, however, is an exceptional fragment that contains a portion from a similar text.


List of Olympic champions, Egypt, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 1185

This papyrus is an administrative document from Egypt containing a financial account from the 2nd century CE. On the back is a unique list of Olympic winners copied slightly later. We have no idea why this list was added to this papyrus, but it records the names of 80 Olympic champions between 480 BCE and 438 BCE. The names are listed in the rank-order of ancient Olympic sports, according to the sequence when they were added to the Olympic repertoire.

  • running (sprint (c. 200m), mid-distance (c. 400m), long-distance (2000m)
  • pentathlon (comprising the sprint, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus)
  • wrestling
  • boxing
  • pancration (‘all-force’ combat: a deadly combination of wrestling and boxing)

It is intriguing to find the name of the re-patriated Ergoteles in this list as the long-distance running champion at the 76th Olympics, just as the note in our Pindar-manuscript describes him.


Detail of Papyrus 1185 with details of Ergoteles ('[Ergo]teles of Himera in dolichos (=long distance running')

Even more fascinating, perhaps, is to observe how the list of traditional Olympic contests expands when armoured combat, the four-horse-chariot race and horse-riding suddenly appeared at the 78th Olympics in 468 BCE, which must have been tremendous innovations at that time.


A “four-horse-chariot” (tethrippon) from Add MS 19352, f. 85r

Although many of these ancient Olympic sports, such as pancration and chariot-racing, are not part of the modern Games, it is surprising to see how much is unchanged since Ergoteles won his first title in 472 BCE. Not only are running, the pentathlon, throwing the javelin and discus, boxing and wrestling part of the modern Olympic Games, but glory and failure, political intrigue and intense media attention continue to be enduring themes. The British Library is delighted to be custodians of such surprisingly rich ancient Olympic material, much of which can be viewed online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Peter Toth


01 August 2016

A Calendar Page for August 2016

For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for August from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

It’s a beautiful August on the pages of the Bedford Hours calendar.

Detail of miniatures of a man threshing wheat and the zodiac sign Virgo, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

The month of August was one of heavy labour for medieval peasants, and at the bottom of the first folio for August we can see a man hard at work threshing wheat.  The landscape surrounding him seems hotter and drier than in previous months, and this background is mirrored in the accompanying miniature.  A young lady in blue appears to be saluting the noble peasant, for the zodiac sign Virgo.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Augustus, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8r

At the bottom of the folio is a miniature that echoes that of Julius Caesar from the end of July, with a king seated on a throne, surrounded by his counsel (albeit without the treasonous murder).  This is no accident, as this miniature is of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir.  August was named after the said Augustus, as the rubrics tell us, for this ‘nephew of Julius wanted a month to be dedicated to him like his uncle’.  And he apparently got his wish!

Calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

The emphasis on Caesar Augustus continues on the following folio.  Adjoining the remainder of the saints’ days for August are two miniature roundels that illustrate additional episodes from the life of this Roman Emperor.  At the middle left is a scene of battle; in the midst of this a gray-bearded man looks at the viewer in a similar way as the throne miniature – this may be Augustus himself.  The rubrics tell us that this shows how ‘Augustus won victory from Anthony his comrade’, illustrating the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 27 BC.  Following this is a miniature of company travelling on horseback, many of whom are playing trumpets adorned with banners reading ‘paix’ (peace) in gold lettering.  This mirrors the rubrics yet again, which describe how Augustus ‘gave peace to the whole world in his time’. 

Detail of marginal roundels of Caesar in battle and bringing peace, from the calendar page for August,
Add MS 18850, f. 8v

-  Sarah J Biggs