Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from October 2017

31 October 2017

An excellent day for an exorcism

To celebrate Halloween we are taking a look at the subject of exorcisms. As part of the ongoing England and France 700-1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Library has digitised a 12th-century psalter and collection of prayers (now Harley MS 2928), which includes an interesting exorcism performed in a traditional Christian rite.

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Exorcism of salt in a prayer for baptism, from Harley MS 2928, f. 10r

There are several accounts of exorcisms in the Gospels, and from the early Middle Ages, the practice of exorcism has been closely linked to the Christian rite of baptism. Evidence suggests that exorcisms were first performed during baptismal services as early as the 3rd century, in ceremonies to convert pagans to Christianity, and exorcism remained popular in works of liturgy which outlined the services and prayers followed in medieval Christian worship.

Exorcisms were performed on people, but could also be used on animals and even objects. Baptism involved the use of salt and water by a priest to bless a person, symbolising their purity as they were admitted to the Christian faith. As the salt and water were tools of purification, these also needed to be pure themselves to prevent demons from entering the person being baptised. A 12th-century baptism prayer in Harley MS 2928 contains an exorcism for salt and water (ff. 10r–11r) to rid them of any demons that might be lurking within. Below is an extract in Latin from the exorcism of salt, followed by an English translation. The + sign represents when the sign of the cross was made during the ritual:

Exorcizo te, creatura salis, per Deum + vivum, per Deum + verum, per Deum + sanctum, per Deum, qui te per Eliseum Prophetam in aquam mitti jussit

‘I exorcise thee, creature of salt, by the living God +, by the true God +, by the Holy God +, by the God who by the prophet Eliseus commanded thee to be cast into the water’


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Full-page miniature of the Baptism of Christ, from Harley MS 2928, f. 16r

The manuscript features later 13th-century illuminations attributed to an anonymous artist known as the 1285 Master, and these miniatures depict biblical scenes including the Baptism of Christ showing him being immersed into blessed water. Several medieval manuscripts contain illuminations depicting exorcisms being performed, such as the Tsar Ivan Alexander Gospels (Add MS 39627). Composed in 14th-century Bulgaria, the Gospels are accompanied by decorated scenes of Christ expelling demons from men. One colourful image depicts a scene from Scripture in which Christ expels demons from a man, which then enter a herd of pigs. The now-possessed pigs rush to a nearby lake and are drowned.

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Christ exorcising demons from a man which enter a herd of swine, from the Tsar Ivan Alexander Gospels, Add MS 39627, f. 162v

Exorcisms were just one practice performed in the Christian Church to protect its followers from harm. The collection of prayers in Harley MS 2928 includes three prayers for the absolution of penitents (ff. 12r–v), used by priests to forgive those who may have committed sins. The sinner could confess their misdeeds, and if they wished to be forgiven, the priest would absolve them with prayer. Absolution was an important rite, as having received forgiveness for wrong-doing, that person’s soul could now enter Paradise after death.

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Text containing three prayers of absolution for penitents, from Harley MS 2928, f. 12r

The exorcism of salt and water shows that this ritual could be used as a positive force to protect the faithful. Yet, dark rituals did occur outside the authority of the Christian Church. One magical charm survives from the late 4th century (now Papyrus 123) that could be used to summon demons against others and depicts two demons that have been invoked by the charm.

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Depiction of demons, from a magical incantation, Egypt, Papyrus 123

It is small wonder then, that exorcisms survive in many forms from the medieval period to protect oneself, one’s animals and objects from demonic possession. The Anderson Pontifical (Add MS 57337) produced in 11th-century England even features an exorcism of bread and cheese.

Happy Halloween!

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Prayer to exorcise bread and cheese beginning ‘Incipit exorcismus panis’, from the Anderson Pontifical, Add MS 57337, f. 80v


Alison Ray

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30 October 2017

The Art of the Bible lecture at Dulwich Picture Gallery

All writers will know of the struggles, mental and physical, in completing a project. This is nothing new. In April 1091, the monk Dominicus described his relief at having completed writing out a large-scale copy of the book of Revelation and an associated commentary:

My book is ended … For the scribe it has been hard toil; for the reader it will be uplifting and refreshing. The scribe drains his body of strength, while the reader nourishes his mind. So if you gain anything from this work, forget not the labouring scribe … Those who cannot write think it no work at all. Should you, however, wish to know what labour it entails, I shall tell you how heavy a burden writing is. It brings darkness to your eyes, crooks your back, wrecks your ribs and stomach, pains your kidneys and engenders loathing of your body … As sweet as the home port is to the sailor, so is the final line to a scribe. The end. To God be thanks for ever.

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Colophon in which Dominicus describes his relief, from the Silos Apocalypse, Add MS 11695, f. 278r

Dominicus also identified himself and brother Munnio, monks at the abbey of Santo Domingo in northern Spain, as the scribes of the work in an inscription, and possibly also the flowers below it: ‘Scribano Monnio’ and ‘scribano Dominico’.

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Detail of flowers possibly identifying the scribes, from Add MS 11695, f. 278r

These scribes' work, now known as the Silos Apocalypse, and illuminated twenty years later with stunning illustrations, is one of the treasures of the British Library. You may like to know that the manuscript is fully digitised, and available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website: the Silos Apocalypse, British Library Additional 11695. It is also featured in the recent book, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016).

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St John before Christ, with a double-edged sword either side of his mouth, with the Seven Churches represented by arches, Revelation 1:10-20, Add MS 11695, f. 24r

The authors, British Library curators Dr Scot McKendrick and Dr Kathleen Doyle will be discussing their feelings of arriving at the ‘home port’, and hopes that readers will find their work ‘refreshing’, at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 15 November, as part of the lecture series, InSight Lecture Series: Book Illustration: Enriching the Story. For more information and to book tickets, follow this link.

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The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016) 


Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the British Library

Dulwich Picture Gallery

15 November 2017 (10.30–11.30)

Kathleen Doyle

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28 October 2017

Harry Potter: A History of Magic on BBC2

If you like Harry Potter and/or you're interested in the history of magic, you're in for a real treat this Saturday, 28 October. A documentary focusing on the British Library's new exhibition is to be broadcast on BBC2, at 21:00. It features the Library's curators, famous actors, wandmakers and a certain well-known author, and it's called, just like the exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. (The documentary is now also available on the BBC iPlayer.) We think you just might want to watch it, and hopefully you'll be eager to see the exhibition afterwards.

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The artwork of the British Library exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, showing Jim Kay's fantastic illustration of a phoenix

Here, to give you a taster of the television programme, are two short clips, including an introduction to a rather special scroll and the story behind the incantation 'Abracadabra'.

Jim Kay's Harry Potter

Harry Potter, as illustrated by the brilliant Jim Kay, whose original artwork is on display in the British Library exhibition


The television documentary Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Saturday, 28 October

BBC2, 21.00–22.00


The exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018


Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter Exhibition and Medieval Historical Manuscripts)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


27 October 2017

Collaborative doctoral research at the British Library: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

The British Library is advertising a new round of opportunities for Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships. We are delighted to announce that one of the specially selected research themes is Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

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Queen Elizabeth I’s draft answer to the Lords’ petition that she marry, 10 April 1563: British Library, Lansdowne MS 94, f. 30

The CDP studentship will run for three years from October 2018 to September 2021. During this time we will be preparing for an exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, which will open in the autumn of 2020, giving the award-holder the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s public programmes as well as working on their doctoral thesis. Full details of our research theme for this partnership, and some suggested areas of study and research questions, can be found here.

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Autograph letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Queen Elizabeth I, in French, announcing her arrival in England, 17 May 1568: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

The selected university partner will receive an AHRC training grant to cover the student’s fees and stipend, including a Research Training Support Grant and Student Development Funding (standard RCUK eligibility criteria apply). The Library will provide the students with staff-level access to the collections, expertise and facilities of the Library, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year. The student will also benefit from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated to the CDP scheme.

So, if you are based in a UK Higher Education Institution and would like to co-supervise an AHRC-funded doctoral student on this research theme, or one of the other themes selected for next year, apply by 24 November 2017. For any queries about how to apply or to find out more about the Library CDP programme, please email [email protected].


Andrea Clarke (Lead Curator of Medieval & Early Modern Manuscripts)

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26 October 2017

The gladiator saint

Gladiatorial games were spectacular shows in the ancient world. In theatres built across the Mediterranean, from the Middle East to the site of the Guildhall in London, professional fighters did battle to entertain the public. The origins of these combats went back to the early Roman Republic, when they probably had magical functions. As part of the funerary rituals, they were sacrifices to the netherworld or played a role in war-magic with gladiators bearing the enemy’s names being gloriously defeated by Roman-looking gladiators to ensure their victory in real battles.

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Miniature of a wrestling game from a 15th-century illustrated copy of Virgil’s Aeneid: 
King's MS 24, f. 88

From the mid-3rd century, however, gladiatorial games became an integral part of city entertainment and political propaganda. Should anyone like to be a successful politician, all he needed to do was to organise a lavish spectacle of games, lasting for several days, accompanied by banquets and scenic performances, and success would be guaranteed. No wonder then that such combats were especially popular in imperial times. Later Roman emperors were constantly trying to outbid their predecessors by funding more and more luxurious games. They recruited gladiators from all over the empire and purchased exotic animals — elephants, lions and bears — to populate their amazing theatres that could even host miniature sea battles. 

Fragment of a 3rd-century representation of an arena-scene from Oxyrhynchus:
Papyrus 3053

Gladiators, by these times, were professional combatants, some of them fighting as slaves but also for money or fame or simply revenge, not unlike Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator. From the 1st century CE onwards, a new aspect appeared: Christians, arrested for their faith, started to appear on the stage to serve as mass victims to the slayers.

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Details of illustrations showing martyrs tortured in the arena, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066:
 Add MS 19352, f. 55r

However, we also hear about the opposite: gladiators, warriors and their slayers coould also become saints. In a 14th-century Greek manuscript held by the British Library we find a story about Nestor, a 3rd-century Greek gladiator.

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Lection for 26 October from a 14th-century collection of saints lives: 
Harley MS 5069, f. 178v

On the afternoon of 26 October, so the story relates, the emperor organised luxurious games to celebrate his arrival in Thessalonica. The highlight of the event was when his favourite gladiator, a giant 'barbarian' called Lyaeus, boasted of his numerous victories all over the Empire and challenged the Christians of the city, calling them to fight and defeat him in single combat. The rules were strict: the emperor built a special stage for Lyaeus’s battles, similar to a threshing floor on pillars. Spears, points upward, were planted beneath this platform. When Lyaeus defeated someone in wrestling, he would throw him from the platform onto the forest of spears. No one could beat him in this special combat.

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Nestor fighting Lyaeus in the arena before the Emperor Maximianus from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: 
Add MS 19352, f. 125v

Nestor accepted this challenge. Jumping onto the stage, he knocked down Lyaeus and threw him onto the sharp spears. According to the story, this made him a champion not only of Christianity but also of Hellenism and civilisation. Although Nestor was put to death immediately by the furious emperor for the murder of his favourite wrestler, Nestor's reputation outlived him. He became renowned as the first holy gladiator, celebrated from Greece to England every 26 October.

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Nestor slaying Lyaeus from a 12th-century English lectionary: Arundel MS 91, f. 107r

Nestor's story, whatever historical truth might be in it, offers an account of a special type of gladiatorial games. His story also showed how the memory of gladiatorial games was perpetuated in art, texts and the imagination of later generations who — had the old manuscripts not preserved the story — would know little about these ancient games.

Peter Toth

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25 October 2017

Purple pages at the Ashmolean

How have humans depicted and talked about gods? Some answers to this question are presented at the exhibition Imagining the Divine, which is on at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 18 February 2018. This exhibition focuses on the 1st millennium AD — a time which witnessed the development and expansion of several major world religions — and it shows how different religious traditions influenced and interacted with one another. The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of manuscripts to the exhibition which exemplify that theme.

A purple page with gold and oxidized silver letters, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, early 9th century: Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 1v

One of the manuscripts that can currently be seen at the Ashmolean is the Royal Bible (Royal MS 1 E VI), which was probably made at Canterbury in the early 9th century. Its ninth-century scribes created at least three pages covered in a deep purple colour, with text written in silver and gold. Pages dyed or painted purple had been created in the Mediterranean earlier in the first millennium. Purple was a colour reserved for the clothes of Roman emperors and it had connotations of power and luxury.

Purple pages from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 4v

In a Christian context, purple pages and text in gold silver represented the glory of heaven. As the text in a late 8th-century gospel lectionary (Paris, BnF nouv acq lat 1203, f. 126v) put it:

Golden words are painted on purple pages

The Thunderer's shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,

Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven ...

(translated by Paul E. Dutton)

Striking ‘purple pages’ were used in sacred texts throughout and beyond Europe. The Ashmolean’s exhibition also features a Qu’ran from Baghdad with deep blue pages. Like the Royal Bible, it was made in the 9th century.

Blue Quran from Sarikhani Collection
The ‘blue Qu’ran’ on display at the Ashmolean Museum, from the Sarikhani Collection

The exhibition also shows how much work went into the showpieces that the scribes produced. On display is an end page of a British Library manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XVI) where different scribes have copied words or fragments of prayers and hymns. At the top of the page, someone has practised drawing interlace decoration. This type of decoration is found in manuscripts throughout northern Europe and also in metalwork and sculpture. Other examples are on display in the exhibition. Underneath the interlace is a very rough sketch of a man with a shield.

Practice makes perfect! End page with additions by late 10th- or early 11th-century scribes: Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v 

The rest of the manuscript contains riddles, a poem on the Gospels, a glossary of Greek words and a copy of Bede’s textbook, On the Art of Poetry. These texts were written by Northumbrian, West Saxon and Iberian authors. However, judging by this manuscript’s ink and script, it was mostly copied in what is now France, before coming to England, which is probably where the scribes added the pen trials.

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Detail of pen trials of interlace from Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v

Other items loaned by the British Library to the exhibition come from the Asian and African collections. These include a copy of the Book of Exodus in Arabic script (Or 2450); a copy of the Heart Sutra from China, where the text is written in the shape of a stupa, or shrine (Or 8210/S4289); and an 8th-century Qu’ran (Or 2165). If you get a chance, you can visit the Ashmolean and see them all!

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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.


The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast — this Potter thing might just catch on one day — but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.


Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)


A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)


How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)


You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.


Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018



18 October 2017

Highway to Hell

Today we're living easy, living free because we're on the highway to Hell! We have a season ticket on a one-way ride to explore the Hell-mouth, a popular depiction of Hell in illuminated manuscripts.


Raising a little Hell: full-page miniature depicting Archangel Michael locking the entrance to the Hell-mouth, from the Winchester Psalter, Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r

Imagery of the Hell-mouth has been used from the early medieval period, as the gaping mouth of a beast or serpent filled with the tortured souls of the damned. This image may have originated in Anglo-Saxon literature, with a number of surviving works describing Hell as the mouth of a beast or the Devil himself. One late 10th-century collection of religious texts now known as the Vercelli Book, currently housed at the Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare di Vercelli, northern Italy, contains a quotation in Old English comparing the Devil to a dragon swallowing human souls:

necumaþ þa næfre ofþæra wyrma seaðe . ofþæs dracan ceolan þe issatan nemned.

'came they never out of the pit of snakes and of the throat of the dragon which is called Satan' (Homily 4:46-8: transcription from The Digital Vercelli Book; translation from D. G. Scragg, ed., The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)).

This type of imagery inspired illustrations in contemporary manuscripts like the New Minster Liber Vitae (now Stowe MS 944). Produced in Winchester, this manuscript features 11th-century prefatory drawings including dramatic scenes of the Last Judgement that stretch across two folios. The top illustration shows angels leading souls to St Peter, who holds open a door to the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the middle scene, two saints watch on as St Peter and a demon fight over a human soul. In the final scene below, Archangel Michael locks the door to Hell as a demon drops struggling souls into the open mouth of a beast, the Hell-mouth.


An almighty scene: a depiction of the Last Judgement with the Hell-mouth in the bottom illustration, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff. 6v–7r

Hell-mouths continued to appear in manuscript illuminations throughout the Middle Ages, becoming more imaginative and wonderfully gruesome in their decoration. The Winchester Psalter (now Cotton MS Nero C IV), produced in the 12th century, contains an elaborate miniature cycle of the Last Judgement, featuring the toothy Hell-mouth of a beast filled with grinning demons tormenting human bodies, including one demon spearing an upside-down king with a pitchfork. Ghastly images like this miniature reminded medieval Christians that judgement awaited them also after death: if they passed, they could join the angels in heavenly paradise; if they failed, they faced eternity in the jaws of Hell.


Give 'em Hell: miniature portraying a three-headed Hell-mouth devouring creatures, from an Apocalypse, Add MS 17333, f. 43r

Illustrated Hell-mouths were particularly popular in Apocalypse manuscripts, works that contain copies of the Book of Revelation. This text is the final book of the Bible, featuring lurid visions of the struggles between good and evil before the Last Judgement. In a 14th-century French Apocalypse composed in both Latin and French (now Add MS 17333), images are used to depict the text, like a three-headed Hell-mouth illustrating the following passage from Revelation 20:10 (f. 43r): 'And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.' Three creatures likely representing the devil, beast and false prophet of the text are consumed by fire and brimstone within the wide jaws of the Hell-mouth. A demon can even be seen prodding a six-headed beast with a poker.

A 15th-century Book of Hours known as the Bedford Hours (now Add MS 18850) similarly contains scenes from the Last Judgement at the opening of the Office of the Dead, a prayer cycle commonly read for deceased loved ones in order to help their souls reach Paradise. The accompanying miniature acts as a visual reminder to readers of what awaited them after death: elaborate detail and decoration to glorify Paradise and gore-ify Hell. Christ appears enthroned in judgement over human souls, flanked by saints and angels. Souls that have passed judgement are greeted by angels as they reach Heaven. The damned souls below are forced into a fiery Hell-mouth, and roundels feature demons grinning as they beat human figures with mallets and turn a torture wheel.


Glorification of Heaven, Gore-ification of Hell: Hell-mouth in a full-page miniature depicting the Last Judgement, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 157r

However, according to AC/DC, there is a bright side to ending up as a snack to a Hell-mouth:

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too!

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Like a bat into Hell: Detail of a marginal drawing with a bat-like Hell-mouth devouring souls, from Harley MS 3999, f. 21r


Alison Ray

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