Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from November 2017

12 November 2017

Simply the bestiary

Every now and then we come across a real page Turner. So here it is, with a little help from a 1980s power ballad. 

You’re simply the bestiary!

Royal MS 12 C XIX

 Better than all the restiary …

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 30r

Better than any swan

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 39v

Any swan I ever met

 Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 39v close

I’m stuck on your hart!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 23r

I hang on every word you say

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 65v

Tear us apart -

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 26v

No no -

Baby, I would rather be dead.

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 11v

Oooh! You’re the best!

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 37v

All these images are from a richly illuminated bestiary in the British Library’s collections, Royal MS 12 C XIX. The manuscript in question was made in England early in the 13th century, and is related to other bestiaries now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Follow the hyperlinks and you'll discover more of its beautiful images. We love it and have more than a feeling that you will, too.

And what's love got to do with it? Everything. 

Amy Jeffs

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11 November 2017

Science Museum loans in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

There are some stunning medieval manuscripts in the British Library's current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. We have spent the last year searching our collections for items that relate in some way to the magical subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and we've made some incredible discoveries along the way. But no exhibition of this magnitude is complete without the assistance and generosity of other institutions. Visitors to the show will recognise instantly that our books are complemented by a wealth of fascinating objects, many of which have kindly been loaned by our friends at the Science Museum in London. We would like to record here our gratitude to the assistance provided by both the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust in enabling us to borrow these items, which have helped to make our exhibition such a magical experience. Which is your favourite? The mandrake root, perhaps, or the unicorn shop sign?

We are also delighted to announce that, on 12 December, Roger Highfield and Sophie Waring of the Science Museum will be delivering one of our Hogwarts Curriculum Lectures on the subject of Alchemy. You can book your tickets here. It promises to be a very special evening. Roger has also contributed a wonderful essay on Potions and Alchemy to the exhibition book, published by our friends at Bloomsbury. That's well worth a read, though we'd love you to be able to make it to the exhibition in London as well. It closes on 28 February, and tickets need to be purchased in advance.


A mandrake root: this mandrake root dates from the 16th or 17th century, and it has been carved to resemble the figure of a human. The mandrake's resemblance to the human form has prompted many cultures over the centuries to attribute special powers to the plant. In reality, the mandrake’s root and leaves are poisonous and it can induce hallucinations.


A real bezoar stone: a corruption of the Persian word pādzahar (pād, expelling; zahar, poison), bezoars were first introduced into medieval Europe by Arabic physicians and reputedly provided a powerful antidote to poison. Wealthy owners (including kings and popes) spent considerable sums on acquiring the stones (digested by goats and similar animals), and often kept them in elaborate cases.


Apothecary jars: we love these apothecary jars, which were possibly made in Spain in the 17th century. The jar labelled ‘Vitriol Coerul’ contained copper sulphite, ‘Ocul. Cancr’ stored ‘crabs eyes’ — particles from the guts of putrefied crayfish, used to cure indigestion — while the jar named ‘Sang. Draco.V.’ contained ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a potent red resin that still has medical uses today.


An apothecary's sign: the blood, hair and horn of the unicorn have been traditionally believed to possess powerful medicinal properties. This sign would have stood outside an apothecary’s
shop in the 1700s. The horn is made from the tusk of a narwhal, otherwise known as the ‘unicorn of the sea’.


A miniature orrery: an orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, often used for teaching. This miniature orrery was made in London in the 18th century by the mathematical instrument maker, John Troughton. It displays the movement of Earth in relation to the Moon and two other planets. 


Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

until 28 February 2018


Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

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09 November 2017

Harry Potter exhibition books on sale now

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library's new blockbuster exhibition, is currently on show (until 28 February 2018). It's definitely worth making a special visit to London. There is an array of beautiful books and artefacts on display — the Evening Standard has described it as 'a cornucopia of magical and mysterious items' — including medieval manuscripts, cauldrons and Chinese oracle bones.

We're delighted to say that two books have also been published by our friends at Bloomsbury to accompany the exhibition, one entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic and the other aimed at a family audience, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic. They are incredibly well researched and written, and beautifully illustrated (says someone who wrote, edited, reviewed and proofed them!). The 'adult' version contains essays by Lead Curator, Julian Harrison, together with astronaut Tim Peake, naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall, the Rev Richard Coles, Lucy Mangan and others; while the family version contains lots of fun activities for younger people.

Both books are available online or from the British Library shop, as well as from other major retailers. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them!


Harry Potter: A History of Magic


Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic


Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

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07 November 2017

Illumination study day at the British Library

A couple of weeks ago we held a very successful study day for the University of the Third Age, with the British Library Learning Centre auditorium filled to capacity. We thought it might be helpful to provide a list of the British Library manuscripts and suggestions for further reading, for those who would like to look at the manuscripts again in more detail.

Illuminated manuscripts

Dr Alixe Bovey (Head of Research at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London) discussed 'The World in Illuminated Manuscripts'.  

Harley MS 7182, ff. 58v–59r, a depiction of the world based on Ptolemy’s Geography

Harley MS 3667, f. 8v, an Isidoran ‘T-O’ map of the world, Annals of Peterborough Abbey

Harley MS 2772, f. 70v, Macrobius, Commentary of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio

Egerton MS 2781, ff. 1v, 48r, 190r, the Neville of Hornby Hours: f.1v: diagram of the cosmos; f. 48r: the seasons; f. 190r: possible depiction of the manuscript’s owner

Harley MS 4940, f. 28r, Matfre Ermengau, Breviari d’amor, angels cranking the universe

Harley MS 4431, f. 187v, the Book of the Queen, a sibyl shows Christine de Pizan the firmament

Harley MS 3647, f. 32r, an astronomical miscellany

Royal MS 1 E VII, f. 1v, the Creation, in a Bible made at Canterbury

Add MS 18719, f. 1r, a Bible moralisée, Creation scenes

Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v, the Queen Mary Psalter, God and Lucifer

Add MS 18856, ff. 5v and 7v, a Bible historiale: f. 5v: creation of sun and moon; f. 7v: God resting

Harley MS 616, f. 1r, a Bible, Creation scenes

Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v–2r, Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, map

Harley MS 2633, f. 53v, commentary on Cicero's De somno Scipionis, mappa mundi

Sloane MS 2435, f. 1r, Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps, Creation scene

Royal 2 b vi

Miniature of God holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 1v

Scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett MBE gave us a calligrapher’s view on parchment, the preparation of pens, ink and pigments, and the writing and illumination process. Her recent publication includes lots of examples and discussion: The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017).

Illuminated manuscripts 5


Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library) focused on the different types of illustration in English Psalters.

Add MS 89250, the Mostyn Psalter

Add MS 42130, the Luttrell Psalter

Cotton MS Vespasian A I, the Vespasian Psalter

Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, the Tiberius Psalter

Cotton MS Nero C IV, the Winchester Psalter

Royal MS 2 B VII, the Queen Mary Psalter

Royal MS 2 A XVI, the Psalter of Henry VIII

Arundel MS 83, the Howard Psalter

Add MS 62925, the Rutland Psalter

Arundel MS 157, a Psalter


Illuminated initial 'Q'(uam) at the beginning of Psalm 83 (84), with a partial foliate border inhabited by a human-headed hybrid creature and geometric line fillers. In the lower margin are two naked wrestlers, one purple and one brown, engaged in a game of foot-wrestling: Add MS 42130, f. 152v


In the afternoon, Dr Mara Hofmann (Sotheby’s) gave us a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of French illuminated manuscripts. Mara has written a detailed guide with lots of examples, as part of the British Library’s online digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts virtual exhibition, available here

Illuminated manuscripts 2

The programme closed with Dr Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library), who similarly illustrated the richness of Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts.

Add MS 34294, f. 133v, Gerard Horenbout, Virgin and Child in Glory, in the Hours of Bona Sforza

Add MS 18855, ff. 109r, 108v, Simon Bening, June, December

Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 11v, Master of Beaufort Saints, St Christopher, in the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours

Add MS 89066/2, ff. 69v–70r, Loyset Liédet, Coronation of the Emperor Galba, in Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur

Harley MS 4418, f. 99r, Créquy Master, Christians fighting Saracens, in the Roman de Mélusine

Cotton MS Vespasian B I, f. 15r, Master of the Harley Froissart, Presentation to Philip the Good

Royal MS 14 E V, f. 29r, Master of the Getty Froissart, Fortune appearing to Boccaccio, in Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes

Add MS 71117, ff. C, J, Simon Marmion, St Matthew and David in Prayer, from the Hours of Ladislas IV Vasa

Add MS 38126, ff. 102v–103r, ff. 240v–241r, Simon Marmion, Virgin and Christ; Virgin and dead Christ, in the Huth Hours

Add MS 18851, ff. 41r, 437r, Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, Coronation of the Virgin, in the Breviary of Isabella of Castile

Add MS 18852, ff. 411v–412r, St James the Greater, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 54782, f. 230r, Hastings Hours

Add MS 35313, ff. 89v–90r, Master of James IV of Scotland, Nativity and Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, in the Rothschild Hours      

Add MS 17280, ff. 24v–25r, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, Trinity and Monday Hours, in the so-called Hours of Philip the Fair    

Add MS 18852, ff. 14v-15r, Fall of Man and Mirror of Conscience, in the Hours of Joanna of Castile

Add MS 24098, f. 18v, Simon Bening, Month of December, in the Golf Book

Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r, Simon Bening (?), Agony in the Garden and Arrest of Christ

Add MS 12531, f. 4r, Portuguese Royal Genealogies

Royal MS 16 F II, f. 89r, Poems of Charles of Orleans

Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 2v, Collection of motets


Miniature with Christ praying on the Mount of Olives, accompanied by a full border with the Betrayal, at the beginning of the Passion of Christ: Egerton MS 1147, f. 229r


Further reading

Christopher de Hamel, Bibles: An Illustrated History from Papyrus to Print (Bodleian Library, 2011)

M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1500 (London, 2003)

Patricia Lovett, The Art and History of Calligraphy (British Library, 2017)

Scot McKendrick, Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts 1400-1550 (London: British Library, 2003)

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, Bible Manuscripts: 1400 Years of Scribes and Scripture (London, 2007)

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

The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- )


Kathleen Doyle

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02 November 2017

How many horns does a unicorn have?

How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?

A detail from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a unicorn.

A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r

I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?

A page from a 17th-century printed book, showing illustrations of five species of unicorn.

Five species of unicorn, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694): British Library 37.h.7., part 2, p. 9

On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.

A detail from a 16th-century printed book, showing an illustration of an Italian unicorn.

An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r

Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a unicorn.

The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: Burney MS 97, f. 18r

The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a heron.

A heron: Burney MS 97, f. 4r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of two owls.

Owls: Burney MS 97, f. 10r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a lioness.

A lioness: Burney MS 97, f. 16v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a centaur.

A centaur: Burney MS 97, f. 19v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a porcupine.

A porcupine: Burney MS 97, f. 26v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing illustrations of different sea creatures.

Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: Burney MS 97, f. 31v

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of an octopus.

An upside-down octopus: Burney MS 97, f. 40r

A page from a 16th-century Greek manuscript, showing an illustration of a cuttlefish.

A cuttlefish: Burney MS 97, f. 41v

And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. 


Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts

We'd love you to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.


01 November 2017

A calendar page for November 2017

Ah, November – the days are shorter and it’s getting colder! Let’s dive into the 11th month as shown in Add MS 36684. If you’d like to know more about this fascinating Book of Hours, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011. 

Add_ms_36684_f012r Add_ms_36684_f012r
Calendar pages for November, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 11v–12r

The first page of November’s calendar is a riot of colour and decoration. Crowning the page is a lizard-bird hybrid creature, with a green head, lurid red lips, red feet and a long, feathered tail.  

Detail of lizard creature, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

The right margin – known in medieval manuscript parlance as the ‘gutter’, because it falls between the two bound pages – includes the intriguing combination of a tonsured male head stuck between two long legs. Above him stands a stork-like figure with bright orange, spindly legs and a long, pointed beak.  

Add_ms_36684_f011v gutter
Right margin, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

November’s labour of the month is arguably the creepiest scene we’ve had in this calendar, but how was it perceived by contemporary audiences? Our labourer wields an enormous axe. The animal in a box next to him is likely a hunting dog used to help capture the boar depicted at the labourer’s feet. The boar is about to be stunned with the back of the axe, before being slaughtered. This method is called ‘poleaxing’ and is the origin of the modern term. A poleaxe is a butcher’s axe with a hammer as well as a blade.

Add_ms_36684_f011v labour
Slaughtering a boar: the labour of the month for November, Add MS 36684, f. 11v

A similar scene of slaughter for the month of December appears in the Bedford Hours (f. 12r), except the figure holds a giant mallet.

Slaughtering livestock at the beginning of winter ensured the animals were killed before they began to lose the weight gained over summer and autumn. Rural communities could then feast on the fresh meat and preserve as much as possible for the year’s meanest months. In fact, Blotmonath (blood month) was the Anglo-Saxon name for November. This may seem sinister to us now, but for them it must have held a promise of winter feasts and nourishment when food was scarce.  

November’s calendar finishes on the second page with the zodiac figure of Capricorn, shown as a goat. As we discussed in August’s post, the artist is ahead of himself with zodiac figures; Capricorn is normally shown in December, as its period is December-January.  

Capricorn, Add MS 36684, f. 12r

Please do go and browse all of the wonderful Add MS 36684 in high definition on our Digitised Manuscripts site.  


Taylor McCall

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