Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

13 posts from December 2016

10 December 2016

Ocean Explorers at the Institut du Monde Arabe

Seemingly every day, new evidence comes to light of the extent of international connections in the Middle Ages. For example, the British Museum recently published the discovery of Middle Eastern bitumen used at the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial. How, then, did these movements occur, and what were their effects? The Institut du monde arabe in Paris is giving a unique opportunity to explore these questions with their exhibition entitled ‘Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo’ (‘Aventuriers des mers de Sindbad à Marco Polo’), running from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017. The British Library is delighted to have loaned two of our manuscripts for this exhibition.


Ship atop a whale: Harley MS 3244, f. 60v.

If there is anything that everyone understands about medieval sailing, it is that it was incredibly dangerous. The only means of navigation was the sky until the magnetic compass was imported from the Arabic world, which was first recorded in the West in the 1180s by Alexander Neckam, then a teacher in St Albans. Shipwrecks were inevitable. One of the popular methods of depicting of a whale, symbolizing the uncertainties of the sea, showed a ship that had accidentally landed on its back, with its crew lighting a fire. This story is most famously told in the Voyage of St Brendan. Every year over the course of their seven-year voyage, his crew moored on the back of a whale named Jasconius to celebrate Easter. The whale in Harley MS 3244, an English bestiary from the 13th century, is a particularly vivid example of this motif.

Also starring in the exhibit is Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, the Itinerary of the Red Sea (Roteiro do Mar Roxo) by João de Castro. It includes a beautiful series of coloured maps, notably showing ships with many different types of sails, underlining their varied origins. Our manuscripts are shown alongside many other artefacts showing the influence of travel on pre-modern culture, from both the Middle East and Europe. In case you need yet another excuse to travel to Paris, now you have it.

Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo is at the Institut du monde arabe from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017

Andrew Dunning

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07 December 2016

Forme of Cury: A Medieval English Cookbook

Anyone wanting to rethink Christmas in the face of today’s relentless commercialisation might look to the past for inspiration. People in the Middle Ages took Christmas much more seriously than some of us do today: the four weeks before 25 December, called Advent, were not focused on shopping and awkward office parties, but prayer and fasting (a less rigorous version of Lent). They also knew how to enjoy themselves more thoroughly: Christmas starts on 25 December, and lasts for 12 full days. If you’re curious about what this might have involved, we have new inspiration in one of the first cookbooks written in English, Forme of Cury. Its oldest complete copy, Add MS 5016, is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


‘Chykens in hocchee’ in Forme of Cury, Add MS 5016.

Forme of Cury might sound as if it is promoting the wonders of Indian food in the 14th century, but this phrase might more accurately be translated Method of Cookery in modern English. It was likely written around 1390. The title comes from a preface explaining that it was assembled by the ‘chief master cooks of King Richard the Second’, who reigned in England from 1377 to 1399. The author explains that the book itself was intended as a means of instruction:

First it teacheth a man for to make common pottages and common meats for household as they should be made — craftily and wholesomely. Afterward it teacheth for to make curious pottages and meats and subtleties for all manner of states, both high and low. And the teaching of the form of making of pottages and of meats, both of flesh and of fish, both set here by number and by order; so this little table here showing will teach a man, without tarrying, to find what meat that him lust for to have.

Archaic language aside (a ‘pottage’ is a soup or stew), this might sound surprisingly modern to our ears, perhaps the beginnings of democratic cooking. But the book’s notion of ‘subtleties’ shows that it was hardly aimed at beginners. The chefs of aristocrats loved to make contrivances that displayed food in unusual ways: they might use sugar, jelly or wax to confect models of buildings, ships or eagles. Some foods might be disguised as something else, such as meat that appeared outwardly to be fruit. This was not so much a replacement of a teacher as an aide-memoire. Do-it-yourself handbooks were still in their infancy, and did not fully come into their own until after the introduction of printing.


The Forme of Cury scroll, Add MS 5016.

The book is written in what might now strike us as an odd format: a scroll, as opposed to a folded codex, as the vast majority of our books now come. Not all copies of The Forme of Cury are in this form, but it seems likely that this was its original conception. We can only speculate on why this was done; one theory is that it shows it was conceived as something of a record of the king’s kitchen, similar to the pipe rolls, used in England between the 12th and 19th centuries for keeping the annual records of the Exchequer.

The combination of the book’s age, royal origins and unusual format have made it one of the first stops in research on medieval cookery. It was the subject of an entire BBC documentary, ‘Clarissa and the King’s Cookbook’. It also featured in our recent Treasures of the British Library series. The ingredients used in its recipes do not disappoint: it is the first work of cookery in English to mention modern staples such as olive oil, cloves and mace. There are also many spices that would in its day have been incredibly valuable, such as nutmeg or ginger, but today are widely available.


Blue stitching joining the membranes of the Forme of Cury scroll, Add MS 5016.

Which of the 196 recipes in Forme of Cury should one begin with? The British Library's own Polly Russell met with London chef Ashley Palmer-Watts in 2013 to look at the book and consider how its recipes might work on today’s Christmas menu. They developed a modern version of frumenty. Many other reworkings of its recipes can be found in print and online. Pygges in sawse sawge, anyone, or perhaps cold brewet?

Andrew Dunning


05 December 2016

Polonsky Digitisation Project: Last Call for Nominations

Our latest digitisation project has begun as we work to digitise 400 pre-1200 manuscripts from the British Library holdings, with a generous support from The Polonsky Foundation. The joint project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France seeks to promote and explore the contacts between France and England from 700 to 1200, as witnessed in medieval manuscript culture. We have already started, and have compiled a list of around 250 manuscripts that are key to the project themes. However, we would welcome ideas from readers about illuminated manuscripts at the British Library that you would like to see digitised.

Harley MS 2719 f001

A glossed copy of De compendiosa doctrina by Nonius Marcellus (British Library, Harley MS 2719, f. 1r) originates from France, either Brittany or Loire, 3rd quarter of the 9th century.

With the wealth of manuscripts from two national libraries, how does one go about choosing the most interesting and vital manuscripts for digitisation? Library catalogues — both published and unpublished — and academic research and publications are a good start, and have yielded plenty of information on wonderful illumination and decoration. We have identified a core of manuscripts we wish to open up for our readers. These will reveal beautiful illuminations and colourful images, and will allow global access to significant medieval copies of interesting texts. 

Harley MS 3020 f113

Decorated initial ‘F’(actum) in British Library, Harley MS 3020, f. 113r, made in southern England in the 10th century, possibly Christ Church, Canterbury.

One of the goals of the digitisation project is to respond to the needs of scholarly research. Published research tells us what has been studied, but we also want to know what is going to be studied in the future! So we would like to turn to our readers and ask you for nominations — which manuscripts would you like to see digitised? What are the manuscripts that would most illuminate the cultural sphere of England and France between 700 and 1200? We can’t promise that your nominated manuscript will be included, as we will need to consider its condition, length and relationship with the other manuscripts to be digitised in each Library, but we will consider all of your submissions carefully. 


The opening folio of the Life of Saint Birinus from British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 121r. The text was copied in England during the 1st quarter of the 12th century, possibly in Winchester.

You can nominate a manuscript for selection by writing to England&[email protected] or by commenting on this post. Please suggest a British Library manuscript that was written either in England or France before 1200, and explain its importance to you in a few words. The deadline for nominations is Tuesday, 31 January. We will publish lists of digitised manuscripts on this blog once they become available online. 

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

Polonsky Credit

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.


Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.


The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.


Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.


Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.


Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.


Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.


Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.


Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.


Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.


A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.


A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.


In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r


Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.


Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.


A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

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01 December 2016

A Calendar Page for December 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 December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration. 

Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December.  On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head.  The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough).  On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn. 

Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12r

On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword.  He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world).  The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’.   These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).

Calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

More on this glorious month follows.  Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings.  On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other.  The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’.  A lovely image.   The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly.  It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice. 

Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December,
Add MS 18850, f. 12v

May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!

-   Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)