Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from August 2018

31 August 2018

Magical manuscripts in the Spellbound exhibition

The exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft is now open at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Among the other exhibits, it features a selection of spellbinding manuscripts on loan from the British Library, revealing attitudes to magic in the Middle Ages.

A page from a manuscript of the Breviari d'Amor, showing a diagram of spheres of the elements and planets with four angels holding them.

Breviari d'Amor: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 50r

Medieval beliefs in magic were closely linked to people’s understanding of the order of the universe. Classical and medieval science envisioned the universe as a series of rotating concentric spheres, as pictured in this cosmological diagram in a 14th-century French manuscript. Earth was at the centre of this scheme, surrounded by the seven spheres of the ‘wandering stars’ — the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — and finally Heaven, the sphere of the fixed stars. It was thought that the motions of these spheres and the actions of the spiritual beings residing there were instrumental in influencing events on Earth.

A manuscript of the Secretum Secretorum, showing an illustration of Alexander with two astrologers pointing at the stars with a queen and a woman with new born babies.
Secretum Secretorum
Add MS 47680, f. 31v

This idea is illustrated in Secretum Secretorum, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise falsely attributed to Aristotle. The text is a ‘mirror of princes’, or guide to being a good ruler, presented as advice given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great. This manuscript was commissioned for Prince Edward (the future King Edward III, reigned 1327–1377), by the King's Clerk, Walter of Milemete. The image shown here is from a portion of the treatise discussing the importance of keeping good counsel, in which Aristotle’s character stresses the importance of astrological knowledge in selecting ministers.

Aristotle demonstrates his point with a story, illustrated in the miniature above. There was once a weaver’s son who was born under highly auspicious stars. When he grew older, the bookish boy would do nothing but study history and science. Eventually he became a government minister and managed the affairs of kings. Another boy was the son of an Indian king, but the stars at his birth foretold that he would become a smith. Although his father tried to give him a princely education, the boy was interested only in smithing, and he went on to produce the finest swords in all of India.

In the miniature, Alexander listens to the advice of two astrologers. Each points to the stars and to a birth scene, one royal and one humble. The gestures of the astrologers indicate that, regardless of their families’ social status, the children’s futures were written in the stars.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Sworn Book of Honorius, showing illustrations of angels.

The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Medieval magic often attempted to harness the power of the stars more directly. This 15th-century manuscript is an English translation of the Sworn Book of Honorius, a Latin book of magic written in the early 14th century. The text explains how to summon heavenly intermediaries to do your bidding, with the page above discussing the service of the angels of the seven spheres. Accompanying this passage are illustrations of the red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel, whose 'nature is to cause and stir up war, murder, destruction and mortality of people and of all earthly things'. Alongside them are the friendlier golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, whose nature is to 'give love and favour and riches to a man and power also to keep him hail and to give dews, herbs, flowers and fruits in a moment'. The text emphasises that this magic is entirely Christian and virtuous, asserting that the spirits would never answer the requests of the wicked.

A detail from an amuletic roll, showing an illustration of the wound in Christ's side.

An amuletic roll: Harley Roll T 11 (detail)

Magical materials were widely adapted for different uses. The circular diagrams in this 15th-century English roll are closely related to those found in collections of incantations such as the Book of Honorius, but employed here as protective charms. The roll was designed to be worn as an amulet for personal protection. Of the four magical diagrams shown here, the first gave protection against enemies, the second against storms and thunder, the third claims that ‘by it all things were made’, and the fourth claims ‘this is the name of God, whoever carries it with him will be safe’. Underneath is an image of Christ’s side-wound, demonstrating the fluid relationship that could exist between magical and devotional beliefs.

A page from a manuscript of The Pilgrimage of Man, showing an illustration of Satan instructing witches.

The Pilgrimage of ManCotton MS Tiberius A VII, f. 70r

Magic was strongly criticised by many medieval commentators. The above image is a scathing representation of magic from a 15th-century copy of John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of Man, a verse translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. In this moralising account of an allegorical journey, the pilgrim ‘everyman’ meets an old hag who, it turns out, is the personification of sorcery. This unpleasant character is peddling inscriptions, images, ointments, herbs and astrological readings, which she uses for malicious ends. The pilgrim asks her, “Tell on without more tarrying, where learnest thou all thy cunning?” “Soothly as I rehearse can, I learned my cunning off Satan”, she replies.

Specifically, she was a student at Satan's school, as depicted in this miniature. It appears that classes at Satan’s academy involved brewing green potions and abducting babies. The school fees were also notably high: when the pilgrim asks, “what gave thou him for thy cunning?”, the hag answers, “The truth, if I tell shall, my soul I gave him, whole and all”.

If you'd like to learn more about these manuscripts, we'd highly recommend that you visit the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, from 31 August 2018 until 9 January 2019. You can also view all the manuscripts described above on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.


Eleanor Jackson

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27 August 2018

Old English elephants

My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between early medieval kingdoms on the island of Britain and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

An illustration of an elephant accompanying the text of the Marvels of the East, in an 11th-century miscellany.
An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people from those kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many early English speakers had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

A detail from an Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of an elephant and a monkey.
An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

A detail of a passage discussing elephants from the Tollemache Orosius.
Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

A page from a manuscript of Aldhelm's riddles, showing the opening of a Latin riddle about an elephant.
Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the post-Roman kingdoms in the island of Britain. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

A detail from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing an illustration of elephants accompanying the text of the Marvels of the East.
Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.


Alison Hudson

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25 August 2018

Throwing a medieval feast

If you dished up cygnet, bittern, woodcock, plover or snipe (all protected UK species) at a modern dinner party, you would probably be arrested. However, if you had attended the wedding feast of King Henry IV in 1404, you would have been served all these once plentiful fowl. Accompanying them were meat dishes including suckling pigs, rabbit, brawn, venison and ‘great flesh’, while the fish course boasted salmon, plaice, lamprey, crayfish and ‘porpoise in furmenty’. Pastries, tarts and jellies also appeared in almost every course.

Wealthy medieval diners relished variety and novelty. They would have enjoyed two or three courses with seven to ten dishes served together. It was usual, at these great events, to mix sweet and savoury delicacies, and to serve spectacular ‘subtelties’ between courses. These were often made of sugar paste or jelly. For instance, the subtlety for the feast of the inauguration of the bishop of Salisbury in 1417 was an ‘Agnus Dei’ (a religious symbol denoting Christ, in the form of a lamb bearing a flag). That for the inauguration of the bishop of Bath and Wells in 1425 was, intriguingly, ‘A Doctor of Law’.

A page from a 15th-century historical chronicle, showing an illustration of John of Gaunt dining with the king of Portugal.
Guests await the food with bread rolls, trenchers, knives and salt already on the table, when John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, dined with the king of Portugal: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 244v.

The feast of John of Gaunt is shown above. What details can be recognised? The pale brown shapes near the edges of the table are dome-topped, flat-sided bread rolls, while the attendants appear to be carrying a roast bird. We can infer yet more. Other morsels likely to feature at such an elite banquet may be guessed from late medieval menus — which survive from events like coronations, weddings and inaugurations — as well as recipe collections.

Smaller dishes could be enhanced with dyes, dressings and spices or by serving them in interesting ways. Examples can be found in a late 14th-century scroll called ‘The Forme of Cury’ (‘cury’ is Middle English for ‘cookery’). 

A detail from a medieval cookery book in Middle English, showing a recipe for 'Salat'.

A recipe for ‘Salat’ in the Forme of CuryAdd MS 5016, f. 6r.

This manuscript includes a recipe for ‘Salat’, which combines fennel and herbs with a dressing of oil and vinegar. This would not be out of place in a modern restaurant. Another recipe is for ‘Mackerels in Sawse’. The cook was instructed to dye it green or yellow, which could be achieved using green herbs and saffron respectively: ‘Take the mackerels and cut them into pieces. Cast them in water and onions. Boil them with herbs. Colour it green or yellow and serve it forth.’

A detail from a medieval cookery book in Middle English, showing a recipe for mackerel in sauce.

A colourful recipe for mackerel in sauce in the Forme of CuryAdd MS 5016, f. 7r.

The Liber Cure Cocorum (Sloane MS 1986) includes the instruction that long, skewer-like beaks of the woodcock, snipe and curlew should be pushed through the pieces of the birds’ roasted carcasses, like ready-made kebabs.

Preparations for a feast are shown, comic-strip style, in the lower margins of the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter. At the bottom of the first image, animals, perhaps rabbits and poultry, are being roasted on a spit. In the second image, cauldrons that may contain sauces or stews are attended by a cook. Beside him, a figure appears to be chopping green herbs. This could be the popular ‘Verde Sawse’ (green sauce). Above him, another figure appears to be grinding ingredients with a pestle and mortar.

A page from the Luttrell Psalter, showing a marginal illustration of two figures roasting meat on a spit by a fire.

A page from the Luttrell Psalter, showing a marginal illustration of figures grinding, boiling and cutting ingredients.

Roasting, boiling, chopping and pulverising in the lower margins of the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, ff. 206v–207r.

The next marginal images show the food and drink being arranged in plates and bowls on tables and being carried to the guests. A figure at the first work-table is jointing and plating up roasted meat, the same creatures as were depicted on the spit. The second table is being used to serve drink, presumably wine, from earthenware jugs into shallow bowls, known as mazers. Attendants are then shown carrying the food through on silvery plates. All the work-tables are three-legged for extra stability. In contrast, the lavish dining table on the following page is on trestles and could have been easily dismantled.

A page from the Luttrell Psalter, showing a marginal illustration of food and drinks being prepared for a feast.

A page from the Luttrell Psalter, showing an illustration of a feast.

Plating up, pouring the drinks and serving the diners in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, ff. 207v–208r.

Here, the food is being served to a group of well-to-do diners, and a heraldic backdrop identifies them as the family of Geoffrey Luttrell. Geoffrey may be the figure sitting centrally. The woman to his right is cutting up a piece of meat on her trencher (originally a flat plate made of bread but sometimes wooden by this period). In front of the table, a servant is shown with a towel around his neck, ready for the hand-washing before and after the meal.

There is no denying that a magnificent medieval feast would have been a dazzling and highly crafted affair, even by today’s standards. Perhaps it would not have been so alien an experience after all … give or take the odd porpoise, sugar-paste martyrdom or self-skewered woodcock.


Amy Jeffs

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22 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 2)

We recently reported that we have added several new manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We're delighted to say that many more can now be found online. Here are some of our favourites.

The elegaic Livre des Quatre Dames

In this poem by Alain Chartier (d. c. 1433), an ambassador for King Charles VII of France, the poet meets four ladies, who tell of the fates of their four lovers who were lost at the battle of Agincourt. One lover was killed, one lost, one taken prisoner and one fled. This manuscript is believed to have been commissioned by Anne de Laval (d. 1466) of the Montmorency-Laval family of Brittany and Maine, supporters of the French king. Their coat of arms can be found in the initial on f. 1r.

A page from a manuscript of the Livre des Quatre Dames, showing an illustration of the poet with the four ladies.

The poet with the four ladies, from the Livre des Quatre Dames, France, c. 1425: Add MS 21247, f. 1r

The romantic Guiron le Courtois

The legend of Guiron is part of the Arthurian cycle, dealing with the exploits of earlier generations of heroes, the ancestors of Tristan, Erec and the knights of the Round Table (including Palamedes and Meliadus). On this page, a historiated initial signals the beginning of the adventures of ‘Brehus sans pitie’, who meets Guiron’s grandfather in a cave. From him he hears the whole history of Guiron’s lineage, and of his exploits at the castle of Malaonc, where he befriended Lord Danyn the Red and fell in love with his wife, the Lady of Malaonc, the most beautiful woman in Britain. Later, they both fell in love with the Lady Bloye and Guiron first defeated Danyn, then rescued him from a dragon.

A page from a 14th-century manuscript of Guiron le Courtois, showing an illustration of Brehus finding a knight lying dead in his bedchamber.

Brehus finds a knight lying dead in a beautiful chamber, from Guiron le Courtois, northern Italy, 14th century: Add MS 36880, f. 40v

The gruesome German Missal

This early 15th-century Missal was produced for the Use of Cologne, as is indicated by the calendar and the offices in honour of St Severin, archbishop of Cologne. It contains 7 full-page miniatures of Rhenish execution, and added on single folios, seemingly inserted at random in relation to the text. This image of the 10,000 martyrs probably illustrates the medieval legend of the Roman soldiers, led by St Acacius, who converted to Christianity and were crucified on Mount Ararat by the King of Persia by order of the Roman emperor. They appear to be males, but the calendar of saints includes the feast of the 11,000 virgin-martyrs of Cologne, legendary companions of St Ursula, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the 12th century, was the daughter of the ruler of Cornwall.

A page from a German Missal, showing an illustration of the Ten Thousand Martyrs.

The Ten Thousand Martyrs, from a Missal, Cologne, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Egerton MS 3018, f. 43r

The mysterious Biblia Pauperum

This manuscript consists of a series of black outline drawings. Every second page has a large drawing of a subject relating to Christ’s Passion at the top; below this are two drawings, usually of subjects from the Old Testament; and beneath are two further drawings of the habits of animals, including snakes, birds, dogs, wild boars, fish, an owl, an elephant and a peacock, based on classical authors. Surrounding them are busts of human figures, including prophets. On the facing pages are corresponding texts and quotations in Latin, with explanatory comments.

A page from a German manuscript of the Biblia Pauperum, showing an illustration of the Scourging of Christ.

Christ is scourged, with other images including a figure tied to a tree, a wild boar being slaughtered, and a figure harvesting acorns, from the Biblia Pauperum, ?Germany, 2nd half of the 15th century: Add MS 15705, f. 10r

The horticultural Carrara Herbal

This herbal is a luxury copy created for Francesco Carrara II, Lord of Padua, rather than a practical, medicinal manual. Based on Arabic compilations that were translated into Latin, this treatise written in the Paduan dialect describes the medicinal properties of plants, animals, and minerals. It is accompanied by numerous illustrations of plants that appear more decorative than scientific.

A page from the Carrara Herbal, showing an illuminated initial and an illustration of a plant.

Illuminated initial and a plant illustration from the Carrara Herbal, northern Italy (Padua), c. 1400: Egerton MS 2020, f. 11v

The historical Chronicles of Matthew Paris

This mid-13th century St Albans’ manuscript contains a collection of chronicles and historical material, including the Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie, compiled and copied in part by Matthew Paris himself. At its beginning is a collection of 32 portraits of English monarchs and other historial figures from Britain. It once included Matthew Paris’s full-page map of Britain, now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1.

A page from a manuscript of the chronicles of Matthew Paris, showing portraits of Utherpendragon, Æthelberht, Arthur and St Oswald.

Utherpendragon, Æthelberht, Arthur and St Oswald, in the chronicles of Matthew Paris, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 218v

For the other manuscripts recently added to Digitised Manuscripts, please see our previous blogpost, A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1).


Chantry Westwell

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19 August 2018

Caption competition August 2018

Regular followers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog may know that we occasionally run a caption competition, soliciting weird and wonderful suggestions from our readers. This month we'd like you to tell us what's happening in this image. It's taken from Sloane MS 1975, a medical and herbal miscellany made in the 12th century. Some of its other illustrations are not for the squeamish. Check out the medical procedures on ff. 91v and 93r, for instance. But today we'd like you to focus on the page reproduced below.

You can make a comment at the foot of this blogpost or you can tweet your suggestions to @BLMedieval. There are no prizes but we will publish and retweet the best, so put your thinking caps on!

A detail from a medical and herbal miscellany, showing an illustration of a figure holding a weapon, beside two hybrid creatures.

A medical and herbal miscellany: Sloane MS 1975, f. 13r


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17 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1)

The summer holidays may be here but we have been busy at the British Library, adding more items to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here are some of the highlights.

The beautiful: a Spanish Book of Hours

This gorgeous Book of Hours, about the size of a modern paperback, contains 10 full-page miniatures — attributed to Juan de Carrion, an artist associated with Toledo — and 14 illuminated initials, with full borders in glorious pinks, blues and greens. They are decorated with an amazing variety of flowers, birds and all manner of creatures. This is one of eight stunning illuminated manuscripts acquired from the collector and philanthropist, Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864–1958) of Lee and Perrins, the makers of Worcester sauce. They include the Gorleston Psalter, the de Brailles Hours and the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen.

A page from a 15th-century Book of Hours, showing an illustration of the Circumcision of Christ.

The Circumcision of Christ, from a Book of Hours, Spain, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 50004, f. 41v

The bejewelled: Isocratis de Regno

These two works by Isocrates and Lucian were translated by Johannes Boerius or Giovanni Battista Boerio (d. before 1530), for Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII. Boerio was astrologist and physician to Henry VII, and this copy was made for him in Italy by Pierantonio Sallando. It contains gold borders with jewelled decoration at the beginning of each text. Lucian’s work, usually known as De calumnia, is titled Non facile credendum esse calumniate (‘On not believing rashly in slander’), good advice for a young monarch, but not necessarily followed by Henry VIII later in his reign, particularly with regard to the treatment of his wives.

A page from an early 16th century manuscript, showing the opening of Lucian's De calumnia.

The opening page of Lucian, De calumnia, with a border incorporating the arms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, supported by the dragon and greyhound, and in the border, phoenixes and leopards, and numerous all'antica elements such as vases, cornucopia, and jewels with foliate motifs, northern Italy (Bologna), c. 1505: Add MS 19553, f. 19r

The fabulous: the Spalding manuscript

This collection of Old French texts contains a rare copy of Le Songe Vert, accompanied by a chanson de geste, two classical romances and the Ordene de Chivalrie, a set of instructions on chivalry allegedly given by Hue de Tabarie to Saladin. Le Songe Vert is a 14th-century allegorical poem, written in the Picard dialect and described by its early editor, Leopold Constans, as a ‘curieux poeme’. At the end of the plague of 1347–48, the author dons a black mourning dress and wanders into an orchard. He is consoled by a vision of love and returns with his dress a bright green. You may wonder why this volume is known as the 'Spalding manuscript': its name refers to a previous owner, Maurice Johnson (1815–1861) of Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, in Lincolnshire.

A page from the 14th-century Spalding manuscript, showing the opening of the French poem Le Songe Vert.

The opening page of Le Songe Vert, from the Spalding manuscript, France, 14th century: Add MS 34114, f. 227r

The weird: Liber Belial

The Liber Belial or Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum takes the form of a lawsuit between Lucifer and Jesus Christ, with Solomon presiding. The Devil sues Christ for trespass by descending into Hell. A note on f. 2v states that the text was written on 30 October 1382 at Aversa, near Naples; it is dedicated to Angellus de Castellone of Arezzo, archpriest of Padua.

The opening page of the 14th-century Liber Belial.

The opening page of the Liber Belial, Naples, 1382: Harley MS 3134, f. 3r

The boastful: the life and genealogy of Edward IV

For any aspiring medieval ruler intent on vaunting their prowess and legitimate claim to the throne, a connection to biblical antecedents was an absolute must. In this roll five pairs of large coloured miniatures each show an event in the career of King Edward IV on the right, with its biblical type or precedent on the left. It provides an allegorical representation of Edward's success and the fulfilment of the prophecies that he would attain the throne. To crown it all, his genealogical tree below is in the form of a biblical tree of Jesse (traditionally portraying Christ’s descent from King David), and shows Henry III reclining at the bottom, with Edward IV and Henry VI emerging as opponents at the top.

An illustrated 15th-century roll, containing the life and genealogical tree of King Edward IV.

The life and genealogical tree of King Edward IV, England, 1461–c. 1470: Harley MS 7353, f. 1r

The wonderful: Ovide moralise and other French texts

In this French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is illustrated the legend of the ill-fated lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Here they are shown at their secret meeting place under a mulberry tree. Pyramus, believing Thisbe to have been killed by a lion, has fallen on his sword and lies dead. Thisbe is about to plunge his sword into her throat. As a result, the gods changed the colour of mulberries to red to honour their forbidden love. This manuscript also contains Christine de Pizan's L'Epistre Othea, in which Hector, prince of Troy, is tutored in statecraft and political morality by Othea, the goddess of wisdom.

A page from a French translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, showing an illustration of Pyramus and Thisbe.

A detail from a French translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, showing an illustration of the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe beside a fountain.

Pyramus and Thisbe beside a fountain, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, southern Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

We are adding new content to Digitised Manuscripts every week. A second blogpost will describe some of the other recent additions: keep your eyes peeled!


Chantry Westwell

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15 August 2018

New papyrus position at the British Library

The British Library is delighted to be able to offer a full time papyrus cataloguing and researcher post to work on our world-famous collection of Greek and Latin papyri. This one-year, fixed-term position will be based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Library’s Western Heritage Collections department in London.

A detail from a 5th-century papyrus, showing a drawing of a demon.

Drawing from a collection of magical spells, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century: Papyrus 122

The British Library holds one of the world's most important collections of Greek papyri. Its diverse holdings comprise unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical fragments, magical papyri and an extensive corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 items is now being fully digitised and published online. Newly created images, accompanied with new catalogue entries, will be accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site as well as in a new viewer with additional functionalities to enhance further research.

One of the British Library's papyri as seen in the Universal Viewer.

The Constitution of Athens, Papyrus 131, in our new Universal Viewer

The post-holder will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project. They will create and enhance catalogue entries for the newly-digitised items and will oversee the processing of digital images. Using their specialist knowledge of Greek papyrology and expertise in Ancient Greek and Latin, the cataloguer will be expected to promote the papyrus collection to a wide range of audiences using the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed, as well as participating in events at the Library.

A 6th-century Latin papyrus fragment of a homily by Gregory the Great.

A 6th-century Latin papyrus fragment of a homily by Gregory the Great: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

This post provides the opportunity for someone with a strong background in Greek papyrology to join a dynamic and diverse team to support the full digitisation and online presentation of one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek papyri.

To apply, please visit Full details of the position (reference 02248) can be found here.

Closing date: 9 September 2018

Interviews will be held on: 19 September 2018

14 August 2018

A costume fit for a centaur

Among the many intricate designs compiled in the 15th-century sketchbook of an unknown Italian engineer (Add MS 34113), a centaur costume has an irresistible appeal. It is amusing to think that someone devoted their technical and artistic skills to designing something so wonderfully impractical. Yet, while we may smile wryly at it today, the centaur costume reflects a Renaissance passion for artistic creativity, scientific enquiry and classical antiquity.

A page from a 15th-century Italian sketchbook, showing a design for a centaur costume.

Design for a centaur costume (Siena?, 2nd half of the 15th century): Add MS 34113, f. 176v

The design for the centaur costume consists of a replica of the back and hindquarters of a horse that fastens around the wearer’s waist. Inside, an articulated structure with straps attaching to the wearer’s legs is intended to make the rear legs of the horse ‘walk’ with him. The man wearing the costume holds a rod that apparently connects to the internal structure, perhaps designed to help him manipulate the rear legs. Platform shoes imitating the appearance of hooves complete the look. We sense that the design lacks enough joints and linkages to work in practice, but it demonstrates experimentation with the challenge of mechanically transmitting movement.

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing his designs for diving equipment and his mirrored handwriting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for diving apparatus (Italy, 1st quarter of the 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

The manuscript occupies an important place in 15th-century developments in mechanical engineering. Some of its designs for hoists seem to be indebted to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the engineer who famously solved the challenge of building the colossal dome of Florence Cathedral. Others seem to have roused the interest of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose designs for diving equipment and parachutes appear to be improved versions of those contained here. The manuscript reveals a culture in which engineers were compiling textbooks, sharing mechanical designs and modifying each other’s ideas in a more systematic and scholarly way than ever before.

A page from a 15th-century Italian sketchbook, showing a design for diving equipment.

Design for diving equipment: Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Like Brunelleschi and Leonardo, the creator of this manuscript was an accomplished engineer as well as an artist. The manuscript’s elegant drawing style reveals a draftsman versed in quattrocento artistic developments. In the centaur design, the technical challenge of replicating movement is linked inextricably to the artistic challenge of representing a creature both naturalistically and gracefully. Such aesthetic and practical skills were necessary in an age when creative individuals were commissioned to produce everything that their elite patrons required — from paintings and sculptures, to props and banners for festivities, to works of engineering and architecture.

A detail from a manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing an illustration of Dante and Virgil encountering centaurs in Hell.

Dante and Vergil encounter centaurs in the Inferno (Siena?, 1st half of the 15th century): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 21v

The theoretical approach that transformed the arts and sciences in this period was informed by an enthusiasm for classical learning. As a fantastical creature from classical mythology, the centaur fits easily into this context. In art and literature, centaurs symbolise the bestial and irrational side of Antique culture, characterised as wild and dangerous. For example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the centaurs that patrol the first ring of the circle of violence represent the psychology of madness, with their physical duality reflecting a split mind (Inferno, Canto 12). In Botticelli’s painting Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482), the woman subduing the centaur is an allegory for the triumph of rationality over chaos.

The painting 'Pallas and the Centaur' by Botticelli.

Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

These elements of sophisticated engineering, artistic achievement and classical imagery all came together in the spectacle of public entertainments, which provide the most likely motivation for the design of the articulated centaur costume. The most celebrated artists and engineers of the age were employed to construct awe-inspiring devices for such events. The biographer and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) tells us that, for the 1439 Annunciation festival at the Church of San Felice in Florence, Brunelleschi created a mechanical paradise that was ‘truly marvellous and demonstrated the talent and skill of the man who invented it, for on high a Heaven full of living and moving figures could be seen, as well as countless lights, flashing on and off like lightning’.

From the mid-15th century, the entertainments at tournaments and pageants began to incorporate classical imagery, sometimes including centaurs. For example, at a tournament held in 1481, centaurs, the Cyclops, Ganymede, Vulcan, Neptune, Hercules, Mars and Jupiter rode through Treviso on triumphal cars. During his stay in Trent in January 1549, King Philip II of Spain was entertained by a mock battle with pyrotechnics between an army of men bearing the badge of Hercules and an army of centaurs, giants and ‘Turks’. It is tempting to suppose that the centaur costume was intended as a theatrical device for just such an event.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the constellation Centaurus.

The constellation Centaurus (Rome, c. 1480): Egerton MS 1050, f. 41v

Despite its apparent eccentricity, the design for a centaur costume is a fitting testament to the ideals of its age, in which science, art, classicism and entertainment were inseparably connected.


Eleanor Jackson

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