Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from January 2018

31 January 2018

Discovering our medieval literature

Are you enchanted by Chaucer, bewitched by Beowulf or mesmerised by Malory? Did you know that the earliest autobiography in English was written by a woman, or that several different languages were spoken and written in medieval Britain? You now have the chance to learn more about our rich literary heritage, with the launch of the British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval webspace, making nearly 1,000 years of our literary history freely available online.

A decorated page from Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, with a half-page illustration showing Christine presenting her book to Isabella of Bavaria.

Christine presenting her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, 'The Book of the City of Ladies', Christine de Pizan, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Bringing together over 50 unique medieval manuscripts and early print editions from the 8th to 16th centuries, Discovering Literature: Medieval presents a new way to explore some of the earliest works and most influential figures of English literature. From the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language to the first work authored by a woman in English, the website showcases many rarities and ‘firsts’ in the history of English literature. Some of the highlights include:

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing part of the text of the Marvels of the East, with an illustration of a man with a dog's head, known as Cynocephalus.

The mythical Cynocephalus, a man with a dog-like head, in the 'Marvels of the East', which appears in the 'Beowulf' manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

The new website features medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles, and includes works in Anglo-Latin, Anglo-Norman French, Old English, Middle English and Older Scots. We are especially pleased to be able to showcase the works of a number of female writers, such as Julian of Norwich, Marie de France, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan, and to include engaging human stories, such as that of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Users of the site will be able to encounter the first work of theatre criticism in English — the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (a Lollard sermon against mystery plays) — and the story of Caedmon, a shy cowherd and the first named English poet (in an early manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History).

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing a text known as the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge.

The first work of theatre criticism in English, the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, Add MS 24202, f. 14r

Discovering Literature: Medieval contains more than 20 articles exploring themes such as gender, faith and heroism, written by poets, academics and writers including Simon Armitage, BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, Hetta Howes, and David Crystal. We are equally thrilled to have worked with other institutions to host their own treasures on our site, giving a broader sense of the richness and diversity of medieval literary production.

A page from a manuscript of Lydgate's Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund, showing an illustration of King Henry VI kneeling before St Edmund's shrine.

Henry VI praying at the shrine of Saint Edmund, 'The Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund', John Lydgate, Harley MS 2278, f. 4r

Discovering Literature is a free website aimed at A-Level students, teachers and lifelong learners, providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s literary and historical treasures. Also featured on the site are collections relating to Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th century literature. The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE KStJ, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.

Mary Wellesley

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29 January 2018

Glossed Bibles, hypertexts and hyperlinks

In many ways, glossed Bibles were amongst the hardest manuscripts to create in the 12th century. A glossed book is one where the main text of a work is explained by adding texts ('glosses') either between the lines or in the margins of the page, not unlike our modern notes and annotations. Rather than random notes, however, biblical glosses were compiled by various authors from authoritative sources, and added systematically. In the case of the Bible, the glosses were taken from the writings of the Church Fathers and those of more recent theologians.

A good example is a manuscript from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire (now Add MS 63077) containing the Old Testament book of Genesis with an interlinear and two marginal glosses. The main text of the first chapter of Genesis is written in the centre, with glosses added on both sides. (Read more about this manuscript, and its fur cover, in our previous blogpost.)

A manuscript of the Book of Genesis, showing the text with interlinear and marginal glosses.

Glossed Genesis, with the main text squeezed into a single narrow column (Rievaulx, 12th century): Rievaulx, 12th century, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Reading a glossed Bible is a bit like reading Shakespeare and a commentary at the same time. The glossed page contains various texts keyed to the main text of the Bible in a system of carefully-arranged references. This is the medieval equivalent of the hypertext: texts linked up to other texts that the reader can access immediately without even lifting their eyes from the page. There can be up to four texts running simultaneously: the main text, two flanking columns of glosses in continuous prose as well as a ‘discontinuous’ gloss of single words or explanatory passages written between the lines of the main text. Glosses often take up the upper and side margins and begin with a paragraph sign (similar to our ¶) to make them easy to locate. The glosses are placed alongside the passage they seek to explain.

A page from a Psalter, showing the text with a Latin gloss and a decorated initial letter.

Glosses in the process of enclosing the main text: Add MS 18298, f. 30r

Making a glossed Bible posed a number of challenges for medieval scribes. One way to make the book more readable was to use different scripts for the main text and the glosses. In a manuscript from York Cathedral (now Harley MS 46), the scribe used three different scripts, not including the initial and the capitals for ‘Liber’ (book), the first word in the Gospel of Matthew.

A detail from a glossed 12th-century copy of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, with a decorated initial in gold.

When texts are so close together, script size and style are essential: Harley MS 46, f. 7r

Another challenge was to make the texts fit and run together from one page to another. Designing the layout was not easy before the age of print, especially when it meant positioning three different closely related texts of unequal length. For this reason, the various books of the Old and New Testaments were always glossed separately.  

With time, biblical glosses became increasingly longer, to the point that they ran over the page. To control the ‘spillage’, scribes came up with the idea of using special signs to mark where the gloss stopped on one page and where it continued on the next. These ‘tie-marks’ work as hyperlinks that the reader can follow directly. In one English, late 12th-century manuscript, these two signs occur at the lower end of the page.

   A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a tie-mark.  A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a tie-mark.


A page from a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Luke, with Latin glosses.

Turn over the leaf and follow the signs’: Burney MS 29, f. 5r

The same signs on the verso explain where each of the interrupted texts resumes.

A detail from a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of the Luke, with Latin glosses.

Burney MS 29, f. 5v

Glossed Bibles had many advantages. They led to new, faster and more efficient ways of reading, of locating information quickly, and of accessing related texts which would otherwise require a small library.

 

Cristian Ispir
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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27 January 2018

A mammoth list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks

We have been hard at work here at the British Library and we are excited to share with you a brand new list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks. You can currently view on Digitised Manuscripts no less than 1,943 manuscripts and documents made in Europe before 1600, with more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF Download Digitised MSS January 2018. This is also available in the form of an Excel spreadsheet Download Digitised MSS January 2018 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A 13th-century map of Britain, made by Matthew Paris.

Matthew Paris, Map of Britain, England (St Albans), 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

The list reflects the wide range of materials made available online through our recent on on-going digitisation projects, including Greek manuscripts and papyri, pre-1200 manuscripts from England and France thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation, and illuminated manuscripts in French and other European vernacular languages.

A page from a 13th-century Psalter, showing illustrations of the Journey of the Three Magi and the Magi arriving before King Herod.

Illustrations of the Journey of the Magi and the Magi before Herod, from a Psalter, England (London), 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8r

To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages. We also recommend taking a look at the British Library's Collection Items pages, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.

A detail from the 6th-century Ravenna Papyrus, showing the text of a deed of sale written in Latin.

The British Library’s largest papyrus is over 2 metres long and features a deed of sale, Ravenna, 3 June 572: Add MS 5412 (detail of opening)

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript of Boccaccio's Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, showing an illustration of Boccaccio and Lady Fortune and a battle taking placing inside a walled and moated city.

Depiction of Boccaccio talking to the Lady Fortune and a battle in a walled, moated city, from Boccaccio’s Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 35321, f. 180r

Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, events and exhibitions.

24 January 2018

The British Museum and Harry Potter: A History of Magic

One of the most exciting moments when curating our current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, came when the British Museum kindly agreed to lend us some of their own magical items. The Library and Museum have a long-standing relationship. Apart from having a shared history dating back to 1753 and once occupying the same home at Bloomsbury, we frequently support each others' exhibitions. You may recall, for example, that in 2015 we blogged here about the British Museum's loans to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. We were equally delighted when news came through that the Museum was willing to lend us no fewer than five magnificent items for our Harry Potter show, numbering an astrolabe, some divination cards, a kappa netsuke, a genuine mermaid and the wonderful Battersea Cauldron.

I have to say that we could not help punching the air when we heard that the mermaid and cauldron, in particular, might be wending their way to our exhibition. All five items complement the Library's own books and manuscripts and the other items on display, helping to engage, entertain and educate our visitors in equal measure. We'd like to go on record here to thank the Trustees of the British Museum for their generosity in lending their items to us, and for helping to make our show so spectacular.

The figure of a 'mermaid', made up of the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a fish, dated to the 18th century.

Fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels will be familiar with Harry's encounter with the merpeople in The Goblet of Fire. We have a genuine specimen of a mermaid in our exhibition, courtesy of the British Museum. It was presented to the Museum by Princess Arthur of Connaught in 1942, and had allegedly been caught in Japan some 200 years previously. We often say that it is reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Somewhat disappointingly, we have to reveal that this mermaid was made by fusing together the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a fish, and is evidence of an East Asian trend in the 1700s for fabricating merpeople. We have placed it on show in the room devoted to Care of Magical Creatures, alongside medieval illustrations of phoenixes and printed images of two-horned unicorns.

A 13th-century astrolabe, made from silver inlaid brass.

Astrolabes were probably invented by the Greeks 2000 years ago. They provide a two-dimensional map of the heavens, and could be used to identify the stars and planets and for determining latitude. In the Islamic world, they are also used to find the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray. This finely decorated example, on loan from the British Museum, is made of brass inlaid with silver, and can be dated to the 1200s. The Library's curators have chosen to place it alongside a manuscript from medieval Bohemia, depicting astronomers and astrologers on Mount Athos.

A wooden netsuke, made in Japan, in the form of a mischievous water-creature known as a kappa. 

The kappa takes its name from the Japanese words for ‘river’ (kawa) and ‘child’ (wappa). They were mischievous creatures, and reputedly pulled people into the lakes and rivers in which they dwelt. This seated example of a kappa is in the form of a netsuke, a small sculptural object that is part of traditional Japanese dress. Netsuke frequently took the shape of mythical beasts and could function as talismans. Carved of wood, the kappa’s head has a distinctive hollow to contain the fluid vital to its strength. We made the decision to place this netsuke in Defence Against the Dark Arts, a room which is also dedicated to basilisks, werewolves and snake magic.

A pack of 52 cartomancy cards from the 1700s, used to predict the future.

Cartomancy is a form of divination that uses cards to predict the future. This pack from the 1700s is reputedly the earliest designed specifically for divination. The 52 cards follow an unusual procedure. The kings prompt questions that are answered in the form of enigmatic rhyming phrases. Each card was inscribed with the name of a famous astronomer, seer or magician, such as Merlin, Doctor Faustus and Nostradamus. Other items on display in Divination include Chinese oracle bones owned by the British Library and crystal balls loaned by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

The Battersea Cauldron, made of riveted bronze sheets, dating to between 800 and 600 BC.

Cauldrons are one of the most potent symbols of witchcraft. They were used historically for many different purposes, including preparing potions. This particular example was found in the River Thames at Battersea in 1861, and had perhaps been deposited as an offering to the gods. It is almost 3000 years old and was created by riveting together seven plates of sheet bronze. Visitors to the exhibition can view it in the Potions room, alongside the oldest printed item of witches with a cauldron, dating from 1489, and the 10th-century Bald's Leechbook.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic has proved hugely popular, and thousands of people have visited it in London since it opened last October (it closes on 28 February). We are extremely grateful to the British Museum and all our other lenders for their gracious support, and for helping us to enthral all our visitors, young and old.

 

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

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22 January 2018

Doctoral Students Open Day – Pre-1600 Collections

A reminder for PhD students with research interests relating to the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds: the British Library’s Doctoral Open Day for our pre-1600 collections will take place on 5 February 2018. The day is aimed at first-year doctoral students who would like to learn more about finding and using our collection material for their research. The approach is interdisciplinary and useful for students working on topics in classics, history, literature, history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. You can book your place on the Events page. A ticket to attend costs £10, including lunch and refreshments. The number of places is limited, so booking in advance is necessary. 

Part of a genealogical roll, showing the beginning of the genealogy of King William I, with small portraits of him and his successors.

Beginning of the genealogy of King William I (1066–1087), in the centre, from a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy to Edward I (1272–1307), England, c. 1300–1340: Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5r

On the Open Day you will be introduced to the wide range of manuscript and early printed collections at the British Library and the practicalities of finding and using them in your research. The sessions will help explain how to use and access the catalogues, databases and other relevant online resources relating to each collection area. There is also a session specifically on digital research. In the afternoon, there will be an opportunity to get a closer introduction to some of our collection items.

The opening page from the Gospel of St John, from a 9th-century Gospel-book, with a decorated frame in red and gold.

The incipit page of the Gospel of St John, Gospel book, Northern France, c. 875–900: Harley MS 2797, f. 132r

 

Programme:

09.45–10.15  Registration & refreshments

10.15–10.30  Welcome, speed networking & EThOS (Allan Sudlow, Head of Research Development)

10.30–10.45  British Library Collections: Introduction & Overview (Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Heritage Collections)

10.45–11.00  Comfort break

11.00–11.40  Medieval Manuscripts (Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts)

11.40–12.10  Early Printed Collections (Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula & 16th Century Books)

12.10–12.30  Early Maps (Magdalena Pezko, Curator, Map Collections)

12.30–13.30  Lunch

13.30–14.15  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

14.15–15.00  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

15.00–15.30  Refreshments

15.30–16.00  Digital Research Session (Mia Ridge, Digital Curator)

16.00–16.20  The Art of History and the History of Art (Alixe Bovey, Head of Research, Courtauld Institute of Art)

16.20–16.30  Questions, Feedback forms and Close

A page from the Book of Hours of Joanna of Castile, showing a portrait of Joanna alongside St John the Baptist and a guardian angel, with a decorated border containing heraldic arms.

Miniature of Joanna of Castile (b. 1479, d. 1555) kneeling, flanked by St John the Baptist and her guardian angel with the arms of Joanna and those of her husband, Philip the Fair (b. 1478, d. 1506), Book of Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands, 1486-1506: Add MS 18852, f. 26r

The Pre-1600 Collections Day on 5 February is part of the British Library’s 2017/18 series of Doctoral Open Days, which covers all the different collection areas. Read more about the entire series online. . To find out about how previous Doctoral Open Days have helped early-stage PhD students and what the most commonly mentioned benefits are, take a look at 5 reasons to attend a British Library Doctoral Open Day.

If you do not already have one, we also recommend that you register for a free Reader Pass in advance so that you can make the most of the Open Day. We look forward to welcoming many new postgraduate students to the Library on 5 February.

 

Emilia Henderson

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17 January 2018

Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library

Early Career Post-Doctoral Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts

Thanks to external funding, we are pleased to announce a new 3 year fixed-term position in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern section at the British Library, for a Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts. The successful candidate will have recently completed a doctoral degree in medieval art history, history, literature or another closely-related discipline, or its equivalent, and have the specialist knowledge and strong research experience appropriate for an early career researcher. The new curator will assist the Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, in all aspects of curatorial work. The principal duties will include cataloguing, describing and publicising medieval and illuminated manuscripts.

A page from a 15th-century Italian manuscript, showing a portrait of a figure holding a closed book, with a full decorated border containing the coat of arms of Alfonso II of Calabria.

The opening of a 15th-century copy of Partenopeius by Johannes Jovianus Pontanus, Burney MS 343, f. 1r

A key aspect of the job will be presenting manuscripts in writing and orally to a variety of audiences, including blog posts, exhibition labels and presentations to students and visitors. Therefore, the ability to describe and present a broad range of material clearly and accurately is essential. The interview may include questions about the date and origin of a manuscript to be shown to be shown on the day..

The post holder will assist in the digitisation programme, including the selection of manuscripts to be digitised and the checking and describing of images, so information technology skills, including web-based skills, are also required.  

A strong knowledge of medieval Latin is also essential, as well as palaeographical and codicological skills. Because the post-holder will be working both independently and as part of a team, the successful candidate will possess a high level of time-management skills and the ability to liaise effectively with colleagues in Western Heritage Collections and other departments at the Library.

Full details of the position and how to apply are available online. The reference is 01795.

The closing date is 18 February. Interviews will be held on 8 March.

 

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16 January 2018

Leonardo da Vinci on the Moon

One of the great thrills of curating our blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has been choosing the exhibits and revisiting some of our favourite manuscripts. When we were planning the show, I often used to impress people by mentioning certain of the books and objects we were intending to display: medieval manuscripts, Chinese oracle bones and, oh yes, something written by somebody called Leonardo da Vinci, "you may have heard of him?" At this point heads always turned, and I knew we'd captured everyone's attention.

So what exactly was I talking about, when I mentioned that Leonardo's writings would be featured in the exhibition? You may be aware that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great inventor, scientist and artist, made copious notes throughout his career. These were gathered into a series of notebooks, one of which is today preserved at the British Library in London, where it is known as the ‘Codex Arundel’ (after a former owner, the Earl of Arundel): its shelfmark is Arundel MS 263 and it can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The notes are written in Italian, and if you examine the writing closely, you immediately recognise that they are in Leonardo's characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.

A page from one of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, showing diagrams of the sun and moon, and notes in Italian, written in Leonardo's mirrored handwriting.

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (Italy, c. 1506-08): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

One page from Leonardo's notebook seemed particularly appropriate to show in the Astronomy room of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, alongside objects such as an Arabic astrolabe and the oldest surviving manuscript which charts the night sky (made in China around the year AD 700). The diagram shown here describes the reflection of light, according to the alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth, accepting the theory popularised by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy (d. c. AD 170), that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe. Leonardo was writing, of course, approximately 100 years before the invention of the telescope.

A page from one of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, with diagrams demonstrating the reflection of light, and notes in Italian, written in Leonardo's mirrored handwriting.

A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the reflection of light: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

On the right-hand side of this page are two diagrams showing the Earth and Moon. The second of these supports Leonardo's belief that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would operate like a convex mirror, reflecting light. We may no longer believe this to be true (everyone knows that the Moon is made of cream cheese) but it's always fascinating to get a first-hand insight into the mind of a genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Placing his notebook on display in our Harry Potter exhibition has enabled more of our visitors to come face-to-face with this intriguing document. Maybe we will have inspired some of the astronomers and scientists of the future, who have been coming to see the exhibition in their thousands.

A detail from one of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, showing pencil sketches of the Earth and the Moon.

The Earth and Moon in Leonardo da Vinci's notebook: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on show at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. There has been a huge demand for tickets, so we strongly urge you to book in advance of your visit.

 

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

 

 

12 January 2018

Lady Jane Grey on the BBC iPlayer

Fans of the British Library and of the Tudors alike will be delighted to know that the documentary, England's Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey, is now available to watch on the BBC's iPlayer (UK viewers only). There are three episodes in total, presented by Helen Castor and filmed in part at the Library. Together, they reveal the fascinating story behind the young woman elevated to the throne of England in 1553, and then brutally executed months later.

An advertisement for the documentary 'England's Forgotten Queen: the Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey', showing the young queen wearing a crown.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

In this clip, Andrea Clarke of the British Library shows Helen Castor Lady Jane Grey's very own prayerbook, which is held today at the British Library. The whole manuscript is able to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Harley MS 2342.

 

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