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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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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