Medieval manuscripts blog

11 posts from July 2017

28 July 2017

Summer illuminations at the British Library

There is no need for fireworks this summer – the best illuminations are on the British Library website , in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts! And they will still be around to light up the winter months too. A new upload to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has just gone live, with 25 new manuscript masterpieces and almost 400 new images online.  

Some of the most stunning new images, including the image of a summer boat ride below, come from the Hastings Hours. This Book of Hours is believed to have been made for King Edward IV and later owned by one of his most loyal courtiers and Lord Chamberlain, William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. Although Hastings was executed for treason by Richard III after Edward’s death, the manuscript's vivid colors and lively artwork survives.

Lovers or musicians in a barge, with a city and tower behind, from the ‘Hastings Hours’, c. 1480, Low Countries (Ghent?), Add MS 54782, f. 54r

Another outstanding masterpiece of medieval illumination,  the Gorleston Psalter, has dazzling displays on every page. It was made in East Anglia in the second decade of the 14th century.

Doeg and the priests, with a full border incorporating hybrid creatures, coats of arms and a monkey at the beginning of Psalm 51, from the Gorleston Psalter, between 1310 and 1324, England, East Anglia, Add MS 49622, f. 68v  

A number of Spanish manuscripts have also been added in the recent uploads, including  a late 15th-century Book of Hours, believed to be from Toledo, with vibrant images and crowded borders. In the margins of f. 70v and f. 71r are profile portraits of a man and a woman, perhaps the original owners.

Add MS 50004  f. 70v
Mary holding Christ before the Cross and a full border with a diamond-shaped medallion with a man's head in profile, from a Book of Hours, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Spain, Central (?Toledo), Add MS 50004, f. 70v

Another Spanish manuscript is the Poncii Bible, made in Catalonia, includes mnemonic verses and a version of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl. See our blogpost on this text for more information. It is named after its scribe, Johannes Poncii (Juan Ponce). 

Additional 50003   f. 93v
Detail of A historiated initial 'F'(it) of Hannah praying to God in the clouds, with a dog above and hybrid creatures below, from the Poncii Bible, 1273, Catalonia,
Add MS 50003, f. 93v

After so many pious images, some may prefer vice. The diagram below from the ‘Peter of Poitiers roll’  provides a handy guide to the vices available, with all the possible pitfalls. It follows a series of images from the life of Christ in the Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, a text on the genealogy of Christ. 

Diagram of the Vices: Luxuria, Gula, Avaricia, Accidia, Invidia, Ira, Inanis gloria, and descriptions of their attributes, from the ‘Peter of Poitiers roll’, England, S., approximately 1250-60, Add MS 60628/1, image 10

Meanwhile, the vice of drunkenness is illustrated in a description of the properties of the vine in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things).

Three figures at a vineyard, one of whom has fallen to the ground, presumably in drunkenness; the women on either side hold containers of red and white wine; from Book 17, ‘On herbs and plants’, De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Mantua), before 1309, Add MS 8785, f. 257r

Some important textual manuscripts have been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts as well. These include the Ceolfrith Bible leaves, an early copy of a work by Julian of Norwich,  and copies of texts by Roger Bacon. The new additions are listed in full at the end of this post.

Some of these manuscripts are fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, by contrast, contains a selection of images and allows for searching according to date, place of production, scribe and even image descriptions.  For example, a search for the subject ‘mermaid’ in the 'Image description' field of the 'Advanced Search' page, produces an amazing variety of mermaids of all shapes and sizes, such as this one from the margins of the Office of Vespers in a Book of Hours that has just been uploaded.

Additional 50005   f. 67
A mermaid and an elephant from a Book of Hours, c. 1420, Netherlands, N. (Utrecht or Guelders), Add MS 50005, f. 67r

Another is from the ‘Alphonso Psalter’, commissioned in London, probably to celebrate the marriage of Alphonso (b. 1273, d. 1284), son of King Edward I, to Margaret, daughter of Florent V, Count of Holland.  Sadly, the marriage did not take place as Alphonso died in August 1284 at only 11 years old; but luckily the manuscript survives, containing a veritable feast of marginalia.

Bas-de-page scene of a mermaid suckling her child and an acrobatic monkey on her tail , the ‘Alphonso Psalter’, London (Westminster), c.1284 to c. 1316, the Alfonso Psalter, Add MS 24686, f. 13r

In addition, all the images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts can be downloaded for research purposes. For guidance on the use of these images in the public domain, please see These include glorious images of from the Holkham Bible Picture Book and the Secretum Secretorum and many others.

Here is the full is a list of the manuscripts published this week in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Add MS 8785                        De proprietatibus rerum

Add MS 11662                     Chronicle of St Martin des Champs

Add MS 17739                     Jumièges Gospels

Add MS 20787                     Alfonso X Law code

Add MS 21247                     Livre des Quatre Dames

Add MS 24686                     ‘Alphonso Psalter’

Add MS 27926                     Gospels of Luke and John (Halberstadt)

Add MS 35318                     Book of Hours (Paris)

Add MS 35321                     Boccaccio, Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes

Additional 35254 Cuttings from the Hours of Louis XII

Add MS 37777                     ‘Ceolfrith Bible’ fragment

Add MS 37790                     The ‘Amherst manuscript’, works by Richard of Rolle, Julian of Norwich etc.

Add MS 47680                     Secretum Secretorum

Add MS 47682                     ‘Holkham Bible Picture Book’

Add MS 49622                     ‘Gorleston Psalter’

Add MS 50001                     ‘Hours of Elizabeth the Queen’

Add MS 50002                     ‘Mirandola Hours’

Add MS 50003                     ‘Poncii Bible’

Add MS 50004                     Book of Hours (Spain) 

Add MS 50005                     Book of Hours (Netherlands)   

Add MS 60628/1                 ‘Peter of Poitiers Roll’   

Add MS 71118                     Leaves from a Book of Hours

Royal MS 7 F vii                    Works of Roger Bacon

Royal MS 7 F viii   Works of Roger Bacon

 Royal MS 18 A vi Medical treatises and recipes

                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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26 July 2017

King David: life and soul of the Psalter

In a recent Twitter poll by @BLMedieval, 989 voters resoundingly agreed that, out of a choice of four medieval saints, the best to invite to a summer party would be King David (his knack for the harp being stuff of legend). In tribute to this endearing decision — which spurned St Lawrence and his griddle, St John the Baptist and his lamb, and St Catherine with her wheel (for the pyrotechnics) — we thought it would be interesting to look at images of David and his harp in the decorated initial ‘B’ of medieval Psalters. Sometimes it demands great concentration to decipher letters decorated with scenes (historiated initials) but some have such delicately crafted meanings that the rewards are well worth it. They can be visual puzzles, with a message.

Harley MS 48041 f004r 12th

A decorated initial for Psalm 1 with an image of King David and his harp: Harley MS 4804/1, f. 4r (detail). Chartres, 1st half of the 12th century.

Psalm 1 in the Vulgate Bible opens Beatus Vir, ‘Blessed is the man’. The text proceeds, ‘who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.’ The Psalms, widely believed to have been composed by King David himself, were recited by monks each day in religious services and the words were absorbed in the memory; they could have fallen out of diligent monastic mouths without a second thought. Psalters (books of the Psalms with prayers and other texts) were produced as stand-alone volumes, so the first words of Psalm 1 also mark the beginning of the heart of the book. Decorated initials at the start of major divisions helped the reader to navigate the manuscript and inspired a meditative spirit, reminding the reader to contemplate the familiar text.

In England and France, from the mid-11th century, initials were often inhabited by the author of the Psalms, namely our coveted dinner party guest, King David.  

Arundel MS 60 f.13r 11th-12thc

A decorated initial containing an image of King David and his harp beneath a male figure representing the subject of the Psalm: Arundel MS 60, f. 13r (detail). Winchester, 4th quarter of the 11th century

In a Psalter from late 11th-century Winchester, the initial ‘B’ shows two figures suspended in and inhabiting ornate vegetal scrolls. The lower figure holds a harp on his lap and wears a crown. He looks across to the words of the Psalm. Here is David. The figure above perhaps represents the blessed man discussed by the Psalm.

Decorated initials could contain even more complex meanings. Look closely at an astonishing initial in a 12th-century English Psalter. The annotated interactive version below explains how its artists used the ‘B’ initial to frame a subtly wrought cosmic drama expressing Christ’s victory over Satan. This is all the more astonishing since this ‘B’ is no bigger than the palm of your hand.

Hold your mouse over the image to reveal interactive annotations and explore the

decorated initial of Add MS 17392, f. 1r. Western England, 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

The life of Christ is held by Christians to fulfil the prophecies made in Old Testament Scripture, which includes the Psalms. Thus, inside the upper register is an image that may be Christ in Judgement before a crowd of the Blessed with the book of life, or perhaps preaching to his followers. David is beneath, at his harp, seated beside another male figure, perhaps again the blessed man of the Psalm. Both David and the man point up at Christ. The figures express Christ’s fulfilment of the words composed by David, his ancestor. At the same time (medieval artworks can often be interpreted in a variety of ways), it may be a reference to verse 1 and the blessed man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, on which he meditates day and night.

The plot thickens if we observe how, to David’s left, forming the curved bow of the lower half of the ‘B’, a human soul is being pulled up towards Christ by an angel and hell-wards, feet-first, by a devil. But the devil’s feet are in the mouth of a lion, which is, in turn, being trodden on by David. The possible meaning of this will become clear.

A male figure emerges from behind the lion, passing a scroll up the spine of the initial. It almost touches the end of another scroll, which is being held by a second depiction of Christ. Identifiable by his halo with a cross, Christ is holding a cross-staff, adorned with a flag; the attribute he is often given in images of his Resurrection. So here may be another reference to the New Testament fulfilment of the Old.

At first glance, this initial may just look whimsical interplay of human figures, beasts and plant scrolls. Never underestimate medieval art, because the web of meanings does not end here. If you look just below the crowd of souls in the upper register, you will see that the resurrected Christ’s staff is stabbing a serpent or basilisk and the image of Christ is trampling a dragon. The serpent, asp, basilisk, lion and dragon could be read as symbols of evil, which is the influence of the devil. Psalm 91 reads, 'Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.' In the initial, all of these creatures are shown being vanquished. Thus the male figure next to David, probably the man with whom the Psalm is concerned, is a role-model; ‘blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly’. His feet, too, rest on the back of the devil in the lower border, the one wrestling a soul from the grip of an angel. In this way, the initial could be a powerful call-to-action, telling the reader to follow the example of the blessed man and, in so doing, to hope to overcome the malevolent forces described in the text.

In short, good call for keeping David on the guest-list (and not just because of his untold skills on the harp).


Amy Jeffs

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La première lettre du texte des psautiers médiévaux latins est un ‘B’ car le premier psaume de la Vulgate commence ‘Beatus Vir’ (‘Bienheureux l'homme’). Dans la période romane, cette initiale est souvent fortement décorée avec des motifs végétaux, des bêtes et des figures. Une figure qu’on trouve est le Roi David, avec sa harpe, regardant les mots qui suivent.

On croit généralement que David a composé les psaumes, donc l’image est un portrait d’auteur. Mais la formule est développée pour inclure des scènes théologiques complexes. L’initiale décorée d’un psautier anglais du douzième siècle (Add MS 17392) affiche un drame cosmologique à l'intérieur de la lettre. Si on scrute l’image, on voit des connections subtiles, proclamant la victoire du Christ contre le diable.


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22 July 2017

Job opportunities with the England and France 700-1200 Project

We are pleased to announce that the British Library is recruiting for two new positions for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Both positions are full time, fixed term positions, for 1 year, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department. Full details of the posts and how to apply can be found on


Page with St Mark  holding an empty scroll, from the Sherborne Cartulary which also contains account of the Passion by the four Evangelists, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, England (Sherborne), Add MS 46487, f. 43v.

The British Library is collaborating with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to enhance access to and promote 800 pre-1200 manuscripts, half of which are held by each Library. In addition to digitising and cataloguing 400 pre-1200 illuminated manuscripts held at the British Library, we will also create a new interpretative website to highlight and interpret some of the exceptional manuscripts in the project.

(1) England and France 700-1200 Project Cataloguer and Researcher (Reference COL 01328)

The first new role is for a Project Cataloguer and Researcher. This post is to catalogue and research the manuscripts in the project and enhance existing catalogue records. Other tasks will include the preparation of short summaries of the digitised manuscripts to be placed on the interpretative website. Further responsibilities may include preparing blog posts, checking and publishing images, answering enquiries, presenting medieval manuscripts to specialist and non-specialist audiences, and other activities promoting the project. Full details and how to apply for Project Cataloguer and Researcher.

(2) Curatorial Web Officer, The Polonsky England and France Project (Reference COL 01360)

The second position is for a Curatorial Web Officer. This post is to process, edit and prepare articles, manuscript descriptions and images of selected project manuscripts for the interpretative website, and to assist in the selection and description of images and the uploading of them on the website. The website will also include several films about the manuscripts in the project, and this post-holder will assist in the organisation for and scripting of those films, at least one of which will be animated. The duties of this position may also include the promotion of the website and project through blogs and presentations for researchers and general audiences. Full details and how to apply for Curatorial Web Officer.

Both positions are one year, fixed term contracts, beginning in September 2017, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained. The positions are only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

The deadline for both applications is 16 August 2017.

The interviews for the Cataloguer and Researcher will be held on 4 September 2017 and for the Curatorial Web Officer on 5 September 2017. The selection processes may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview, and a short written exercise.

Bede, De temporum ratione, beginning of the prologue in a manuscript made either in Northern France or in England in the 11th or 12th century; Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 30v.

Tuija Ainonen

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19 July 2017

Matthew Paris and his Abbreviated Chronicle of England

If you're interested in medieval English history, you may at some stage have come across the works of Matthew Paris. A monk of St Albans in Hertfordshire, Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259) wrote his chronicles of the history of England over several decades, constantly revising and updating his information; he is also thought to have drawn the majority of the illustrations. King Henry III (reigned 1216–1272) visited St Albans no less than nine times between 1250 and Matthew’s death in 1259, and we can presume that Henry hoped to be favourably represented in Matthew Paris's writings.

1 royal_ms_4_c_vii_f006r
Self portrait of Matthew Paris from the Historia Anglorum, Royal  MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

The British Library has recently digitised a manuscript containing some of Matthew Paris's historical writings: an abbreviated version of his Chronica Majora ('Great History') and Historia Anglorum ('History of England'), found in Cotton MS Claudius D VI. This shortened version, which focuses primarily on the period between 1066 and Matthew’s day, is known as the Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae ('Abbreviated Chronicle of England'). Not only was this chronicle written by Matthew, but it is likely that he was responsible for many of the accompanying illustrations.

2 cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f009v
The most recent kings of England in Matthew’s time, from L-R, top-bottom: Henry II, Richard I (‘the Lionheart’), John I (‘Lackland’) and Henry III, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v 

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England begins with thirty-two drawings of the kings of England, including legendary rulers such as King Arthur. The first king was believed to be Brutus of Troy, a mythical ruler descended from the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who sailed to Britain and established a ruling dynasty. Upon his death, the kingdom was divided between his three sons: Locrinus ruled England, Albanactus ruled Scotland (Albany), and Camber ruled Wales. King Henry III believed that he shared the blood of Trojan heroes and demigods. 

3 cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f006r
King Brutus of Troy and his three sons (clockwise): Albanactus, Camber and Locrinus, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 6r

This style of images is known as ‘tinted drawings’, in reference to the delicate coloured washes used to accent drawings outlined in dark ink, rather than opaque paint. Matthew Paris was so closely associated with this technique that tinted drawings of this period came to be called ‘School of St Albans’ or ‘School of Matthew Paris’ in later art historical writing. This nomenclature was subsequently discontinued, when it was proved that this style was actually widespread in England at the time.

4 cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi.1 v map
Map of Britain, Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1 (formerly f. 12v of Cotton MS Claudius D VI)

Perhaps the most well-known part of this manuscript is a full-page map of Britain, which is now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1. We have discussed this map and the other maps drawn by Matthew Paris in the blogposts Our Favourite Map and Medieval Maps of the Holy Land.

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England was left unfinished, possibly due to Matthew Paris’s death in May or June of 1259. A later monk of St Albans, known as William Rishanger, continued the chronicle until the year 1293, and the manuscript also contains other historical writings. We're delighted that you can now look at the manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site (and we hope that Matthew Paris would have been pleased, too).

Taylor McCall

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16 July 2017

The future is in the Moon

On this day in 1969, Apollo 11 was launched to take the first men to the Moon. For many medieval men and women, the idea of a journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere would have rocked their worldview: they saw mankind as part of the ‘sub-lunar sphere’, a world where nature is temporal, changing and corruptible. The Moon and other celestial bodies, on the other hand, were thought to inhabit a region where nature is eternal, permanent and incorruptible. A journey to the Moon would have seemed  all the more impossible because of the solid, impenetrable spheres through which the celestial bodies were thought to travel. If you are wondering how comets were accounted for: they were explained as atmospheric phenomena only!  

Image 1
Medieval Cosmology from England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton 2781, f. 1v

Classical writings and translated Arabic sources (from the 12th century onwards) nurtured the belief that the celestial bodies exert a strong influence on the sub-lunar world — both on elements and human bodies — to such a degree that they determine the outcome of daily activities and events. This belief resulted in a variety of astrological writings that provided predictions about future events (prognostications) based on the positions of the celestial bodies. Especially popular among these writings were ‘lunaries’ or ‘moonbooks’. An example of such a lunary is the Middle English verse text The Dayes of the Mone. It presents prognostications for each of the days of the synodic month: the period between two consecutive new moons that alternately has 29 and 30 days. The text, extant in the 15th-century medical and astrological miscellanies Harley MS 2320 and Harley MS 1735, helps readers determine for each day of the lunar month whether the Moon's position makes it into a good or a bad day for bloodletting, buying and selling, travelling, finding lost possessions, and for being born. For example, the text tells us that a child that is born today (16 July, the 23th day of a lunar month) will become ‘a good clerk’.

Image 2
The Dayes of the Mone, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2320, f. 31r

Users of lunaries had a need for diagrams and devices that could help them keep track of the lunar months. An example can be found in a mid-15th-century German manuscript (Additional MS 17987), where a lunary is preceded by a diagram that shows the phases of the Moon.

Image 3
A diagram with the Moon's phases, Germany, 1446, Additional MS 17987, ff. 49v-50r

Perhaps a unique example of a ‘lunary device’ may be found in a series of four paper wheels that are sewn into parchment disks inscribed with Middle Dutch biblical citations and the year ‘1585’ (Additional MS 21549). Its function is not entirely clear, but its contents suggest that it may have been used for determining favourable days for praying for the souls of the dead.

Image 4
A Middle Dutch Lunary Device ? Netherlands, 1585, Additional MS 21549

The large wheel records the 30 days of a lunar month and cites Sirach 27:12: ‘A holy man continues in wisdom as the sun: but a fool is changed as the Moon’. The small disk in the large disk’s upper right corner allows the user to record whether a synodic month has 29 or 30 days. The wheel in the left-hand corner, numbered from 1 until 9, cites Proverbs 10:7: ‘The memory of the just is with praises’. Perhaps this wheel was used to track a period of 9 months of prayer — a so-called novena — for the souls of the dead. A separate fourth wheel, numbered from 1 until 14, states that it is holy to pray for the dead. Maybe it helped users to track the period of 14 days from the lunar month’s New Moon until its Full Moon, which may have been the preferred day for prayer.

Image 5
Another view of Additional MS 21549

Another unique device can be found in a 15th-century German ‘Book of Fate’ (Additional MS 25435). This book provides answers to questions related to a variety of subjects (‘hope’, ‘happiness’, ‘dreams’, ‘wealth’, etc.) provided by 28 Old Testament prophets. These prophets should be consulted on specific days of the sidereal month: a period of time that is based on the Moon's passage through 28 segments of the zodiac (lunar mansions). In order to establish which prophet a reader should turn to for advice and on what day, the reader first needs to work his or her way to four tables with instructions from Classical and Christian authorities at the beginning of the book. For example, if your question pertains to the subject of warfare (‘crieg’), the Roman poet Cicero, in the first table, tells you that ‘what needs to be done shall be answered by Alexander [the Great]’. Alexander, in a second table, instructs you to wait until the month’s 25th day and then ask Pilate what to do. But Pilate, whose advice is found in a third table, wants you to wait until the next month’s 14th day and then consult Mercury. Mercury, finally, reveals that you should ask your question to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah on the month’s 15th day. The latter’s advice is relatively general, but allowed each reader to find a statement that was applicable to his or her situation.

Image 6
A table in the Book of Fate; Zechariah’s advice, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435, f. 2v and f. 10r

What makes this manuscript remarkable is that it features a wooden panel on the inside of its upper cover with, on a moveable disk, a figure with his or her hand in a pointing position that enabled the book’s user to track the days of the sidereal month. Click on the image to see it move!

Image 7 = GIF
The lunary device in the Book of Fate, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435

Today, astrology, for many, is a form of entertainment, but for many medieval men and women it was a very serious matter. Astrology gave them an insight into God’s design of the universe and intended influences of the celestial bodies on earth. The Moon was well beyond their reach, but its perceived importance was much greater than it is for most of us today. To us the Moon's effect on earth begins and ends with its influence on the tides. For medieval men and women its tidal effect only confirmed its much wider influence on the elements and bodily humours.

Clarck Drieshen

14 July 2017

The Heliand

The British Library is currently engaged in a joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 manuscripts made in and around the regions of England and France before 1200. Some people have asked if that means the project will only cover manuscripts in Old English, Old French or Anglo-Norman French. On the contrary! The project covers a variety of different languages, because many different languages were written, spoken and studied in those regions before 1200. The first 100 manuscripts digitised include many texts in Latin, as well as more obscure languages, such as Old Occitan, spoken around the area that is now southern France (Harley MS 2928). Another recently digitised manuscript includes one of the few major works in Old Saxon: the Heliand poem, copied perhaps in England or decorated by someone who was influenced by English styles in the second half of the 10th century.

Opening page of the Heliand, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 11r

Old Saxon was a language spoken in the north of the region which is now Germany. Very few texts or copies of texts written in Old Saxon survive today: at just under 6000 verses, the Heliand is the longest Old Saxon text now known. It is preserved, with some lacunae, in two manuscripts (one at the British Library, one in Munich,  Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 25) and in several other small fragments, such as the folio held in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Beginning of the second fitt, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 13r

The Heliand is a retelling of the life of Jesus. It was translated both into the Old Saxon language and into the attitudes and social structure found in warrior epics. John the Baptist is characterised as Christ’s ‘warrior companion’ (gesið), while the disciples become ‘earls’ (erlos). This poem may originally have been sung or recited out loud: the text is divided into fitts, or songs. Like modern day TV episodes, these would have provided reasonably sized chunks of a longer saga.

The Heliand may have been composed in the early 9th century, presumably in the eastern regions of the Carolingian empire. A preface from a now lost manuscript that was copied in 1562 claims that a ruler called 'Louis' — perhaps Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (d. 840) or Louis the German (d. 876) — ordered scriptures to be translated into Germanic languages (Germanic lingua). However, most scholars think the British Library’s copy of the Heliand was made more than a century later, by an English scribe or by someone who was influenced by English manuscripts because the marginal Latin notes and the style of decoration resemble styles found in English manuscripts. Compare the biting beasties in initials in the Heliand with those in the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) and a copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Harley MS 5431).

Initial Comparisons
Details of zoomorphic initials from the Heliand,
England?, c. 950-1000, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, ff. 132r, 46r; the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), c. 900-925, Add MS 47967, f. 48v; the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975–1000, Harley MS 5431, f. 73v, 74r

Whether or not the manuscript was made by an English scribe or in England, marginal notes in the Anglo-Saxon script known as square minuscule suggest it was owned in England shortly after it was made. It is not known why an Anglo-Saxon, or someone who could produce English styles of script and book production, possessed a copy of the Heliand. However, there were many links between Anglo-Saxons and Old Saxon-speaking regions. As the ‘Saxon’ part of the names Anglo-Saxon, East Saxon (Essex) and West Saxon (Wessex) suggest, some Anglo-Saxons believed they were descended from Saxon or Saxon-speaking immigrants to the British Isles. Anglo-Saxon groups continued to have ties to Saxon-speaking areas through missionary and ecclesiastical activities, marriage alliances and travellers, among others. The Heliand manuscript provides an important reminder of all those ties and of all the languages that were spoken, studied and copied in England over 1000 years ago.


La British Library s’est associée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France dans le cadre d’un projet de numérisation de 800 manuscrits élaborés en France et en Angleterre avant 1200. La grande variété des oeuvres sélectionnées s’entend également par la diversité des langues représentées. Les 100 premiers manuscrits numérisés comprennent des textes latins, mais également des œuvres écrites dans des langues moins communes, telles que l’ancien occitan, un dialecte parlé dans le sud de la France (Harley MS 2928), ou le vieux saxon, une forme ancienne du bas-allemand.

Un manuscrit récemment numérisé contient l’un des rares écrits composés en vieux saxon : l’Heliand.  Ce volume de la seconde moitié du Xe siècle fut peut-être copié en en Angleterre. Avec ses 6000 vers, l’Heliand constitue l’œuvre en vieux saxon la plus importante qui nous soit parvenue. Elle est transmise avec plus ou moins de lacunes dans deux manuscrits, l’un à la British Library, l’autre à Munich (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 25), ainsi qu’à l’état de fragments.

L’Heliand est une réécriture de la vie du Christ, probablement composée au début du IXe siècle, dans l’Est de l’empire carolingien. Dans ce poème épique, le Christ prend les traits d’un prince germanique, Saint Jean devient un guerrier, tandis que les disciples endossent le rôle de comtes. Cette œuvre était sans doute chantée ou contée oralement.

Les chercheurs s’accordent à dire que l’exemplaire de la British Library fut élaboré plus d’un siècle après la composition du poème, et qu’il fut copié par un scribe anglais, ou du moins, un copiste influencé par des manuscrits insulaires. Les annotations marginales en latin ainsi que le style de la décoration sont similaires à des volumes d’origine anglaise de la même période. Que ce manuscrit ait été copié ou non par un scribe anglais, les annotations en minuscule anglo-saxonne laissent penser que le manuscrit franchit très tôt la Manche. Il faut dire qu’il existait des liens étroits tant entre le vieil anglais et le vieux saxon, qu’entre les populations qui usaient de ces dialectes. Les anglo-saxons considéraient d’ailleurs descendre des saxons. Le manuscrit de l’Heliand constitue un précieux témoignage de ces échanges culturels et linguistiques. Il permet également de rappeler que les manuscrits copiés et lus en Angleterre, ne se limitaient pas aux textes en vieil anglais et en latin, mais englobaient une plus large aire culturelle.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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12 July 2017

The Lindisfarne Gospels in the Treasures Gallery

As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. When it is out in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, we turn a page every three months, in order to show visitors a different view of it, and to limit the amount of light on any one opening. In the spring, we displayed one of the book’s wonderful canon tables, but from this month you can see the beginning of the summary for the Gospel of John. 


Decorated word ‘Johannes’ (John) with the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist) below, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 203v

The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known of all English manuscripts, renowned both for the intricacy and beauty of its decoration, and for its importance as the earliest surviving example of the Gospels in English. The Gospels was written by one scribe, who was probably also responsible for the remarkable initials throughout the volume.  According to an inscription added at the end of the manuscript in the late 10th century, that scribe and artist was a monk called Eadfrith, who served as bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. 

The man who added the inscription, Aldred, the provost at Chester-le-Street just north of Durham, also added Old English words above the Latin text. Throughout the text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation above each Latin word in small letters.

In the opening now on display in the gallery, visitors can see the decorated word is ‘Iohannes’ (John), and just below it, the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist), which is translated by the English word ‘godspellere’ directly above it. On the opposite page, the opening words of a summary of John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning’ are so highly decorated that they can be difficult to make out: ‘In Prin[cipio]’ with the last part of the word on the next line (The ‘P’ looks a bit like a modern ‘B’).


Decorated words ‘In Prin[cipio]’ (In the beginning), opening words of John’s Gospel, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 204r

If you can’t make it to London to see this display, check it out online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can use the terrific zoom feature to really analyse the text and the wonderful initials.

The manuscript is also included as the second entry in a recent publication featuring some of the most beautiful Bibles in the Library’s collections, The Art of the Bible (Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016).

Kathleen Doyle

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09 July 2017

It's Caption Competition Time!

There are many ideal ways to spend a sunny summer weekend. One is to visit the beach, another to watch the cricket at Lord's or the Wimbledon tennis (quaint British customs), a third is to set fire to the garden with your annual barbecue. But perhaps the most fiendish of all sunshine pursuits is to attempt to come up with a witty answer for our world famous (our words) caption competition.

So please put your thinking hats on and tell us what is going on in this picture. A quick clue: the image is taken from the Splendor Solis,a  famous alchemical manuscript made in Germany in 1582 (Harley MS 3469). The manuscript in question is currently on display in Berlin (until 23 July). But what exactly is going on here? Answers via Twitter please or through the comments page below this post. We'll retweet and publish the best (and most amusing) answers.