Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from May 2018

31 May 2018

London in medieval manuscripts

The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team comes from all over the world, but we have one place in common: the city of London, where we work at St Pancras. Today is London History Day, and here are some of our favourite medieval depictions of that city, at once distant yet somehow still recognizable.


An early map of the world

London is one of the oldest capital cities, which has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, viking attacks, fires and more. Let's start our survey with the earliest surviving detailed map of the British Isles. This map was made in southern England in the mid-11th century, but it may have been based on earlier models, possibly including maps made under the Roman Empire. The British Isles is shown in the lower left corner, with Lundona being one of the places named.

Cotton MS Tiberius B V!1 London

Cotton MS Tiberius B V!1  f. 56v British Isles


An early map of the world, dating from the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v


London landmarks

The itinerary of Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of St Albans Abbey, is a linear map that allowed the reader to travel to Jerusalem in his or her mind. Matthew described London as the chief city of England and claimed that it was founded originally by Brutus as ‘New Troy’. Matthew also picked out several landmarks, all of which still exist in some form or another today. These included the River Thames, Lambeth, Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the bridge, and the Tower of London. At the bottom of the map, Matthew Paris listed several of the gates of London. (Click here to see Edward Mills’s fantastic reconstruction of Matthew’s view of London.)



Matthew Paris’s depiction of London: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r


The Tower of London

The earliest topographically accurate depiction of London is found in a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, made in Bruges around 1483. Charles had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and he was held in England for the next twenty-five years. At the centre of the image is the Tower of London, where Charles was imprisoned during some of this time in England and where he composed his poems.



A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Another early resident of the Tower was King Richard II. He was held in captivity there shortly after being deposed in 1399. Things didn't end well for Richard, as he subsequently died at Pontefract Castle (perhaps being starved to death).


Richard II in the Tower: Harley MS 4380, f. 181v

One thing is certain. There are now fewer elephants in residence at the Tower than there were in the time of Matthew Paris!


Matthew Paris’s drawing of the elephant that lived in the Tower of London: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v


St Paul's Cathedral

At the centre of the image in his Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew St Paul’s Church. His building is unfamiliar to modern eyes, since he depicted it with a steeple and not with the iconic dome designed by Christopher Wren (d. 1723), following the destruction of the medieval cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.


St Paul's Cathedral in the time of Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey today is probably not much different from the time of Matthew Paris. In the same manuscript as the Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew depictions of kings holding objects with which they are particularly identified. He depicted King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) holding Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt over the structure commissioned by Edward the Confessor. The Abbey today is still largely the same design as that commissioned by Henry.



Matthew Paris’s depiction of Henry III holding Westminster Abbey: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r 


London Bridge

Other London landmarks looked very different. The city's bridges are not lined today with houses, as London Bridge was in the medieval period. The population of London was also substantially smaller: around 60,000 people lived there by 1500. But ‘rush hour’ could still be perilous. John Lydgate recounted how, at 4pm on 20 November 1441, the young son of a butcher was pushed by an ox and fell off London Bridge. Thanks to the help of St Edmund, a passing boatman rescued the child and returned him, safe and sound, to his mother. The whole sequence is illustrated vividly in a 15th-century copy of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.



A boy falling off London Bridge and being returned by a boatman to his mother: Yates Thompson MS 47, ff. 94v, 97r


Alison Hudson and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 May 2018

Will the real Venerable Bede please stand up?

26 May is the heavenly birthday of the Venerable Bede, as he would have put it: that is, it's the anniversary of Bede’s death of 735. Bede is one of the most important figures in early English history, because most of what we know about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms up to the 8th century comes from his writings. Modern historians rely on Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but during his lifetime his theological and scientific writings were equally popular and were studied for centuries to come. So who was Bede as a person? Fortunately, his own writings provide some clues, as do those of people who knew him.

Late 12th-century image of a scribe that may have been intended to depict Bede, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: 
Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r. It's probably not what Bede looked like, though.

In the final chapters of his magnum opus, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede included a short autobiographical note. He stated that he was in his 59th year, having been born in the territory of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, south of modern day Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and presented to the monastery at the age of seven. Bede spent the majority of his life as part of this monastic community, and developed a close relationship to its founders, Benedict Biscop and Abbot Ceolfrith. This autobiographical note also mentions that Bede had written over 38 books, on topics ranging from theology to the art of poetry to mathematics.

Page including the list of Bede's works, from an early 9th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 157v

Further glimpses of Bede’s life appear in his other books. They show that he was a patient teacher, keen singer, devout Biblical scholar and pioneering scientist, who made new discoveries about tides and helped develop a whole branch of mathematics known as computus. In some of these writings, Bede described his life and surroundings more directly. In his old age, Bede wrote an account of the lives of Benedict Biscop, Abbot Ceolfrith and the other abbots of his monastery. Bede described how Benedict Biscop sent for masons from France to build the monastery from stone ‘in the Roman style’, and described Ceolfrith’s departure for Rome with the great Codex Amiatinus in 716. This book will be returning to the United Kingdom for the first time in 1,302 years for the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

First page of the earliest copy of Bede’s History of the Abbots: Harley MS 3020, f. 7r

The British Library cares for two manuscripts that were produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow during Bede’s lifetime. These are books that Bede would have seen, and they help paint a picture of his home as a busy intellectual and cultural centre. One of these comprises some leaves that survive from one of the other two Bibles that Ceolfrith commissioned, in addition to Codex Amiatinus. The other is the earliest intact European book: the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000), made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century.  

CB with Add 89000
Front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century: Add MS 89000

Bede’s life had its rough patches. After Abbot Ceolfrith left in 716, Bede was so upset that it affected his writing, as he mentions in his commentary on 1 Samuel. In another incident, Bede was accused of heresy in the year 708. He wrote a letter to a monk named Plegwin in which he explains the reasons for this accusation. This letter was preserved in a manuscript copied in the 12th century. The letter implies that Bede had been accused of heresy in Plegwin’s presence, and Plegwin had described this incident to Bede in a previous letter. Bede’s reply expressed his outrage, and explained why the accusation was false. The accuser claimed that in Bede’s Chronica Minora, he denied that Christ had lived in the sixth age of the word, as was commonly believed. Instead, Bede argued that Christ had lived in the seventh age. In the letter to Plegwin, Bede wrote: ‘If I had denied that Christ had come, how could I be a priest in Christ’s Church?’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time, p. 405).

Bede's letter to Plegwin: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 83r

The most detailed contemporary account about Bede describes him dying. Not long after Bede’s death, a man named Cuthbert wrote a letter to a deacon named Cuthwin. This letter reveals key details about Bede’s activities on the eve of his death. It described how Bede had shared out his few possessions among his brothers at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Among these possessions were exotic items such as pepper and incense. According to Cuthbert, Bede also urged his brothers to finish a copy of the Gospel of St John, which he had been translating into Old English. He also translated some excerpts of the work of Isidore of Seville for the benefit of his students and recited Old English poetry about death to them.  

Cuthbert’s letter on the death of Bede: Stowe MS 104, f. 112v

After Bede had dictated ‘the last sentence’ to his student Wilbert, he asked to be placed in the spot where he usually prayed. There, ‘on the floor of his little cell, while chanting “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, he breathed his last.’

Becky Lawton and Alison Hudson

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24 May 2018

‘The Earth is, in fact, round’

It’s a major peeve of many medieval historians: the popular belief that people who lived before Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. It is actually rare to find groups in the classical, Late Antique and medieval eras who believed in the flat Earth. On the contrary, numerous ancient thinkers, navigators and artists observed that the Earth was round.

Egerton MS 843  f. 23r
Miniature of the Earth in a circle, with personifications of the four cardinal points, made in England in the 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Egerton MS 843, f. 23r 

The first recorded, unambiguous European references to a spherical Earth are found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. By the time the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was writing the first part of his Natural History around AD 77, the fact that the Earth is a sphere was treated as common knowledge: ‘We all agree on the earth’s shape. For surely we always speak of the round ball of the Earth’ (Pliny, Natural History, II.64).

Harley 2677 f. 1
Opening page of a much later copy of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, made in Rome in 1457 or 1458: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

These views continued into the medieval period, since even the changing hours of daylight throughout the year made it evident that the Earth was round. Around 723 or 725, the monk Bede explained to his students:

‘The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called ‘‘the orb of the world’’ on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions ...’ (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 91).

Explanation of the Earth as a sphere, from a copy of Bede, De Temporum Ratione, made in England or Normandy, late 11th or early 12th century: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 62r  

This belief was also reflected in many medieval maps. Round diagrams of the Earth were included in the works of Isidore of Seville. Meanwhile, a map that was often circulated with the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius showed the climate zones of Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres.

Diagram of the habitable zones of the Earth, from Macrobius, Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis, France or England: Add MS 11943, f. 38v

The idea that the Earth was round was not limited to tracts on science and natural history. Much medieval art also depicted the Earth as a sphere. For this reason, depictions of God the Creator often show him holding a compass, a tool used to draw round objects.

Depiction of God creating the Earth with a compass and scales, from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 7v

  Royal 19 D III   f. 3
Depiction of God the Creator holding a compass, from a Bible historiale made in Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411: Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

Many writers also assumed the Earth was a sphere. Dante’s Divine Comedy even discussed how the shape of the world created different time zones, and how different stars were visible in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Of course, even though earlier thinkers knew the world was round, they did not fully understand how it worked. Without a theory of gravity, Pliny struggled to understand how people who lived in the southern hemisphere did not fall off the world, while Bede denied that anyone lived in the southern hemisphere at all. (Bede was wrong, as you can see in the British Library’s summer 2018 exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages.) 

Royal MS 19 A IX  f. 42r
Diagrams using human figures to show the round shape of Earth, from a copy of Gossuin de Metz’s ‘L’Image du Monde’ made in Bruges, 1464: Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 42r 

Nevertheless, there is one thing on which most human thinkers, for most of history, have agreed — as Bede put it, 'the Earth is, in fact, a sphere'.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 May 2018

Everyone loves a royal wedding

The wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Meghan Markle on 19 May at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, will include centuries-old royal traditions and ceremonial, as they take their vows before God, their families and the Queen. To celebrate this happy occasion, we are displaying two medieval manuscripts with stunning images of royal weddings in our Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between weddings then and now.

Medieval royal weddings were lavish occasions with full traditional regalia, including gold and ermine, gifts and feasting. But these marriages were usually dynastic arrangements rather than love-matches, and the couple were sometimes still children. English kings often chose brides from among the French royalty, to seal a truce or to guarantee the support of the French king.

The Wedding of King Edward II and Isabella of France


The wedding of Edward II and Isabella, daughter of Philippe IV of France, from Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre, Bruges, between 1471 and 1483: Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v

On 25 January 1308, in Boulogne, northern France, the French princess Isabella, aged only 12, was joined in marriage to the new king of England, Edward II (r. 1307–1327), who was then almost 24. The ceremony was depicted by an artist working in Bruges in the 1470s, who imagined the ceremony taking place outside, on the parvis of a Gothic church, in a beautiful landscape in the Flemish style. The illumination shows the bride centre-stage, dressed in shining blue and gold, with a sparkling crown and gorgeous flowing hairstyle. Both bride and groom wear the royal ermine and the long, pointed shoes that were fashionable in this period. Edward would have had trouble going down on his knees to Isabella, as Prince Harry reputedly did to Miss Markle when he proposed. 600 lucky guests have been invited to the wedding this weekend. Here, Edward and Isabella are accompanied by a crowd of courtiers, all wearing gorgeous coloured robes and hats.

The Wedding of King Henry V and Catherine de Valois

Although royal love-matches were rare in the Middle Ages, King Henry V (r. 1413–1422) seems to have been attracted to Catherine de Valois, if Shakespeare’s Henry V is to be believed. Perhaps the fact that their union guaranteed the English succession in France may have been a factor! Their wedding ceremony took place in 1420 and is shown in this magnificent illumination in a huge copy of Jean Chartier’s Grandes Chroniques de France. It was copied in Calais in 1487, probably being commissioned as a gift for King Henry VII of England.

K90033-32 Royal 20 E vi  f. 9v

The wedding of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, Calais?, 1487: Royal MS 20 E VI, f. 9v

Unfortunately Henry V died after only two years of marriage, with the widowed Catherine secretly marrying his squire, Owen Tudor. Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) was their grandson, and needed to establish his legitimate claim to the throne after defeating Richard III. This book was probably a political gift to him and the borders are crammed with royal emblems and devices, and particularly of the new Tudor dynasty. 

You can see the two manuscripts shown above on display at the British Library in London. With the country in the grip of royal wedding fever, we have found more gorgeous images of royal weddings from our manuscripts.

The Wedding of Richard II and Isabel of France

K046161 Royal 14 D vi  f. 268v

Detail of a miniature of Richard II, king of England, receiving his bride, the Princess Isabel, from her father, Charles VI, king of France, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Bruges, c. 1480–1494: Royal MS 14 D VI, f. 268v

This picture of the second marriage of Richard II (r. 1377–1399) in 1396 shows the king about to kiss his young bride. Isabel was only six years old when she married Richard, six years younger than the age limit for marriage decreed by canon law, and again a purely political alliance. We should note that the kiss did not take place on the palace balcony, as is traditional with most modern marriages. This Saturday, however, the royal couple will not be posing on the balcony for a photo, according to a palace spokesperson, as they will not be at Buckingham Palace, where the balcony shots are traditionally taken. 

The Wedding of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence

C13123-17 Royal 14 C vii  f. 124v

Detail of a marginal painting of the marriage of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence: Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, St Albans, 1235–1259: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 124v

Royal wedding rings are today made from Clogau or Welsh gold, a tradition dating back to the wedding of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mother, Harry’s great-grandmother) in 1923. This marginal painting was done by Matthew Paris in his History of the English to illustrate a passage in which he discusses the marriage between King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) and Eleanor, daughter of Ramon Berenguer V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy. The ceremony that took place in 1236 in Canterbury Cathedral is symbolised here by the king's gesture of placing the wedding ring on the queen's finger.

The Wedding of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

No doubt the modern royal couple will receive many gifts. This gorgeous collection of chivalric romances and treatises was a wedding gift probably presented by John Talbot (d. 1453), Earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret of Anjou, future queen of England.

C12262-10a Royal 15 E vi  f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to Queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, in the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book', Rouen, c. 1445: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

This glorious miniature shows Henry VI (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) and Margaret of Anjou holding hands. The wedding ceremony took place on 24 May 1444 in St Martin's Cathedral at Tours. The English king was not present at the ceremony, and so the Earl of Suffolk acted on his behalf, whereas Prince Harry will be waiting for his bride at the altar of St George’s Chapel.

The Celebrations following the Wedding of Louis XII of France and Mary Tudor 

By all accounts the wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Markle will focus on fun, joy and a chance to celebrate with the public. After the wedding of Mary Tudor (1496–1533), sister of King Henry VIII, to Louis XII of France, a sumptuous pageant was presented to celebrate the entry of the eighteen-year-old bride to Paris on 6 November 1514.


The final pageant, with the Annunciation (above) and with Louis XII and Mary seated, flanked by Justice and Truth, with their royal arms linked by lovers' knots above; below is a pastoral scene with shepherds and shepherdesses, from Pierre Gringoire, Pageants for the Reception of Queen Mary of France, Paris, 1st quarter of the 16th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B II, f. 15r


                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Chantry Westwell

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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.


The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r



The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r



Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r


Wace's work was translated in turn by Laȝamon into Middle English, known as Laȝamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of Laȝamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.


The opening page of Laȝamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r


Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.


Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 May 2018

The female pope

Rihanna recently created headlines when she appeared at the 2018 Met Gala, wearing a white mitre, in the guise of a bishop or even a pope. People have long been fascinated with the idea and imagery of a female pope. In the later Middle Ages, there was an oft-repeated story about Pope Joan, a highly educated woman who pretended to be a man and was elected to the papacy. Pope Joan almost certainly never existed, but it's interesting to see how this story evolved.

Royal MS 14 E V   f. 468
Image of Pope Joan, from a copy of Laurent Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De viris illustribus and De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 468r

Some of the earliest references to a female pope appear in 13th-century chronicles, such as the Universal History of Metz, a history of the whole world from the beginning of time. The basis for the most common medieval legend of Pope Joan is found in the Chronicle of Popes and Emperors compiled by Martin of Troppau (d. 1278, also known as Martin of Opava or Martinus Polonus). According to this chronicle, Joan was an Englishwoman who was born in Mainz in the 9th century. She fell in love and dressed as a man in order to follow her lover on his travels to Athens. The brilliant Joan became very well educated and was elected pope. However, her secret was revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a papal procession and died, and the popes never used that route for their processions again. Versions of this story became increasingly elaborate, claiming that Joan had been killed or that a statue was later constructed on the site of her death.

Harley 641   f. 118
Image of Martin of Troppau from an historiated initial in a copy of his chronicle: Harley MS 641, f. 118r

Earlier sources do not support this narrative. Martin and others claimed Joan lived in the 9th century and succeeded Pope Leo IV (d. 855), but they may have confused her with one of the Pope Johns who reigned in the second half of the 9th century. The 9th- and 10th-century papacy was also scorned by contemporary and later writers for its corruption, with some writers suggesting that the popes were controlled by the women in their lives, including their mistresses and such accounts may have fueled ideas about a female pope. The story about Joan's statue may also have resulted from confusion over one of the statues of the Virgin and Child in Rome.
The story of Pope Joan was frequently found in later medieval chronicles, including the 'official' account of the lives of the popes written by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina (d. 1481). Joan also became a major figure in literature. Boccaccio included Joan in his Book of Famous Women, holding her up as a negative example of a clever woman who had the audacity to infiltrate male institutions and brought dire consequences in her wake. Christine de Pizan certainly knew the story of Pope Joan, but she pointedly omitted Joan from her City of Ladies, a text written primarily to praise women and counteract what she claimed was a misogynistic literary culture.

Royal 16 G V   f. 120
Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from a French translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

Other writers treated Joan differently. She was praised by the humanist writer Mario Equicola (d. 1525), who wrote: 'What shall I say of John/Joan VII? It is clear that a woman can ascend to the papacy, the highest rank in Christendom.' Equicola's attitudes may have been informed by his role as a courtier of Isabella d'Este, an Italian noblewoman and influential patron during the Renaissance.

One modern commentator, Thomas Noble, has described Pope Joan as 'a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die'. Given modern fashion trends, it looks as though interest in the idea of a female pope may continue for many more years to come.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


10 May 2018

What's in a name?

Do you ever sign your name in your books? Is that something you did as a child (as I used to do in my Mr Men books) or is it a habit you've carried over into adulthood? Do you ever inscribe your books in case you lend them, or do you date them as a record of when they were acquired?

One person who regularly signed his books was the politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton's library of manuscripts was presented to the British nation upon the death of his grandson, John, in 1702, and it now resides at the British Library. Among its many treasures are two copies of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215, the sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, and the state papers of the Tudor monarchs.

I am particularly keen to learn more about how and when Cotton obtained his manuscripts. Much pioneering work on this topic was done by Colin Tite, who died last year, as recorded in his The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton: The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London, 1994), and The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003). Among the evidence for the gradual growth of Robert Cotton's library are the various catalogues compiled during and after his lifetime, his correspondence with other scholars, and the manuscripts themselves. I hope in time to be able to collate all this information. Below are some examples of Cotton's dated signature, starting in 1588 when he was aged just 17, and encompassing manuscripts such as the magnificent Vespasian Psalter, dated in 1599.



A penitential manual (10th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1588, aged 17: Cotton MS Vespasian D XV, f. 83v




The Vespasian Psalter (8th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1599: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r




Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1600: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 28r




A Glasgow pontifical (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1604: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/1, f. 3r




Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma animae sive De divinis officiis (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1618: Cotton MS Tiberius C III, f. 4r


Among other manuscripts whose acquisition we can potentially date on the basis of inscriptions in the books themselves are:

  • Cotton MS Julius E IV, 'Rob. Cotton Bruceus ex dono Walter Cop militis 1603' (f. 10r)
  • Cotton MS Nero D VII, 'Robertus Cotton Bruceus Liber ex dono vicecomitus sancti Albani 1623' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Vespasian B XXVI, 'Ro: Cotton Cuningtonensis 1602' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Titus A XXII, 'Ro: Cotton / 1596 / Conington' (f. 2v) and 'Robert Cotton / 1598' (f. 286r)
  • Cotton MS Faustina B VII, 'I had this book amongst Mr Talbotts papers 1598' (f. 2r). According to the Oxford Dictonary of National Biography, Thomas Talbot died between 1595 and 1599; this manuscript may indicate that he died around 1598.

Putting all this evidence together, I very much hope one day to be able to continue Colin Tite's magnificent work, so that collectively we understand more about the origins, growth and early usage of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript collection.


Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 May 2018

The spectacular Moutier-Grandval Bible

As part of his plan to reform the Church, Charlemagne gathered scholars and advisors to his court from all over Europe. One of these was Alcuin of York, who prepared a corrected version of the Bible for the Emperor in early 800. Alcuin was appointed abbot of the monastery of St Martin in Tours in 796, and under his direction and that of subsequent abbots, St Martin’s became a major centre for the production of Bibles — over forty copies from the first half of the 9th century survive (for more on this, see David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’, cited in the Bibliography below). Together, these manuscripts constitute impressive evidence of the desire to produce a corrected text of the Bible for use throughout the Carolingian empire. 


Historiated initial ‘B’ with David wrestling a lion, at the beginning of Psalms, in the Moutier-Grandval Bible, Add MS 10546, f. 234r

As noted following a recent discovery at Princeton, the copies of the Bible produced at Tours are large and their text is very legible, with a distinctive ‘export quality script’ (Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’). Of the fourteen surviving Tours pandect Bibles (books bound in a single volume), three are spectacularly illustrated, made during what has been called the ‘high point’ of Tours production, under abbots Adalhard (r. 834–843) and his successor Vivian (r. 844–851). The earliest of these is the Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library Add MS 10546), an enormous volume of 449 leaves that is over half a metre (over one and a half feet) tall. To get a sense of its sheer size, see these images of the manuscript being filmed in the British Library’s photographic studio.

The Bible takes its name from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval in the diocese of Basel, for which it may have been made originally as an export of the Tours scriptorium. The book includes four miniatures that are celebrated as some of the earliest examples of full-page narrative art in manuscripts from the Middle Ages.


The Creation of Adam and of Eve, the Admonition, the Temptation and Fall, the Expulsion and Eve suckling and Adam toiling, at the beginning of Genesis, Add MS 10546, f. 5v

The first illustration appears at the beginning of Genesis, arranged in four friezes, in which the sequence of events moves from left to right. Individual scenes depict selected events described in the second and third chapters of Genesis: the Creation of Adam and Eve; God’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge; the Temptation and Fall; and the Expulsion. Within the borders is a poem in verse written in gold letters also summarizing these events; in fact, the poem may have been composed from the pictures. 

Moses receiving the Law from the Hand of God, and extolling the Law to the people, at the beginning of Exodus, Add MS 10546, f. 25v

The book of Exodus also merits a full-page illustration recapitulating some of its most significant episodes, presented in two rather than four registers. In the upper one, Moses receives the law from the hand of God on a mountain erupting in flames, illustrating Exodus 24:17 (‘And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a burning fire upon the top of the mount’). Below this Moses imparts the commandments from the second set of tablets to the people of Israel (Exodus 34:29–32). Stylistically, the artist’s debt to classical art is clear, in the dress of the figures, the hanging curtains and in particular the architectural backdrop with its arcaded wall, coffered ceiling, and figures in the spandrels reminiscent of Roman wall painting, now known from excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

You can view the Moutier-Grandval in all its splendour on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Die Bibel von Moutier-Grandval, British Museum ADD.MS.10546, facsimile commentary by Johannes Duft and others (Berne, 1971).

Die Karolingischen Miniaturen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler & Florentine Mütherich, 7 vols (Berlin, 1930–2009), II, Die Hofschule Karls des Grossen, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1958), pp. 56–69, pls 42–66; II, 2 parts, 3:1: Die Gruppe des Wiener Krönungs-Evangeliars, ed. by Wilhelm Koehler (1960), pp. 22–27, 30–31, 35–45.

Herbert Kessler, The Illustrated Bibles from Tours, Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 7 (Princeton, 1977), pp. 5, 14, pls 1, 44, 48, 87, 107.

David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 53–62

Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Carolingian Bible production: the Tours anomaly’ in The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 63–77 (p. 63)

David Ganz, ‘Carolingian Bibles’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012–), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden & E. Ann Matter (2012), pp. 325–37.

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, 2016), no. 6.