Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

10 posts from April 2019

04 April 2019

Jews, Money, Myth at the Jewish Museum

Two of the British Library’s medieval charters are currently on loan to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. Jews, Money, Myth explores the role of money in Jewish life over the course of 2000 years. Drawing together art, film, literature, and artefacts from board games and cartoons to costumes and figurines, the exhibition follows the real and imagined stories of Jews — in finance, commerce and capitalism — up to the present day.

One of the loans (Add Ch 1251) is a Latin deed that records the partial repayment of the debt in November 1182 of Richard de Malbis (or Malebisse), a Norman landowner, to Aaron of Lincoln, one of the wealthiest men in England at the time. Malbis was later the principal instigator of mob violence against the Jewish community in York in 1190.

The reverse of a medieval charter, showing a Latin text acknowledging a payment

Receipt for a payment of debt, written in Latin, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251

On the reverse of the deed, an informal Hebrew inscription by Solomon of Paris, an associate of Aaron of Lincoln, acknowledges the payment. Playing on the meaning of Malbis’ name in French (Mal Bete), Solomon states, ‘I have received £4 from Richard the evil beast … from his debt, the large one’.

The reverse of a medieval charter, with a text in Hebrew acknowledging the receipt of a payment

Acknowledgement of a payment of debt, written in Hebrew, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251, dorse

The second loan (Add Ch 71355) is a 13th-century legal document. A bilingual text written in Latin and Hebrew, it is a duplicate of a lost deed of lease of the land for the Jewish cemetery in Northampton, outside the town's north gate, and leased to the Northampton community by the local prior and the convent of St Andrew. The annual rent stated is half a mark, approximately £500 in today’s currency.

A medieval charter, written in Latin and Hebrew, recording the rent for a Jewish cementary

Deed in Latin and Hebrew, recording the rent of a Jewish cemetery, England, c. 1270: Add Ch 71355

Jewish representatives of the community, named here as Samuel hazan ben Aaron, Benet ben Isaac, and Samson ben Samson, witnessed the legal document.

A nearby section of the exhibition examines Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Christ who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15). In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the curators explain that, beginning in the 12th century, ‘Jews began to be presented in Christian iconography as inherently attached to money’. Several reproductions from illuminated manuscripts included in this section show Judas with a bag of money, or his death. 

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing illustrations of Christ being flogged by Roman soldiers (lower) and Judas receiving 30 pieces of silver from Pontius Pilate and then hanging himself (upper)

Judas leaves the High Priest and hangs himself, in a Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century: Arundel MS 157, f. 10r

One illustration is reproduced from a Psalter recently digitised as part of the England and France 700-1200 project funded by The Polonsky Foundation. It is one of 20 full-page illuminations that appear at the beginning of the manuscript, forming one of the most outstanding prefatory cycles to survive from the period around 1200. In this image, Judas is depicted with the infamous 30 pieces of silver, piled next to the High Priest. Judas then hangs himself from a tree, out of guilt at his betrayal of Christ. The scene is juxtaposed with a representation of Christ’s flagellation at the hands of the Romans in the panel below. 

You can read more about this Psalter in Kathleen Doyle & Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination, Manuscript Art in England and France, 700–1200 (London: British Library, no. 39. To explore other manuscripts included in the project, and learn about Hebrew in manuscripts digitised by the project, read this article on the Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website.

A page from a medieval manuscript, with three illustrations showing the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers (left), the betrayal of Christ by Judas (centre), and the selling of Joseph to Potiphar (right)

Judas’ betrayal of Christ, in a Biblia pauperum, Northern Netherlands, c. 1395-1400: Kings MS 5, f. 11r

Also reproduced in the exhibition is an image from an opulent copy of the Biblia pauperum. The Biblia pauperum, or Bible of the poor, is a typological approach to the Christian Bible in which images illustrate how the Old Testament was seen to be both predictive of and more fully explained by the New Testament. The image featured in Jews, Money, Myth is a detail from the central image on this page, which compares the selling of Joseph to Potiphar to the selling of Christ by Judas. In the image, Judas holds a cloak with a large number of coins (although they are gold, rather than silver). The manuscript is described in more detail by Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), no. 38.

For a fascinating discussion of Judas as ‘The Wickedest Man’, we highly recommend that you listen to Janet Robson’s Radio 4 broadcast from 2005. You may also be interested in her article, 'Fear of Falling: Depicting the Death of Judas in Late Medieval Italy', in Fear and its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. by Anne Scott and Cynthia Kosso, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 6 (Turnholt: Brepols, 2002), pp. 33–65.


Jews, Money, Myth is on show at the Jewish Museum, London, from 19 March until 7 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue is edited by Joanne Rosenthal and Marc Volovici (London: Jewish Museum, 2019).


Calum Cockburn and Kathleen Doyle

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01 April 2019

Did Leonardo da Vinci invent the egg timer?

The parachute. The helicopter. The hoverboard. It's well known that all of these were invented by the Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago. But can the egg timer also be added to this list? That is the stunning conclusion reached by researchers who have spent literally hours poring over one of Leonardo's notebooks, now held at the British Library in London.

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing his designs for egg timers and other inventions

Design for an egg timer (?), in Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 242v

Studies of Leonardo's correspondence have revealed that he was very fond of eggs, which he enjoyed as part of a rich and varied diet. In one letter addressed to King Francis I of France (1515–1547), for whom he famously painted the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), Leonardo noted that he would give anything for a plate of 'uova strapazzate' (scrambled eggs), washed down with a flagon of the best ale from Perugia. In a set of accounts perhaps associated with the famous painter are also listed payments for quails' eggs, alongside figs, ginger and anchovies (this may explain the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile).

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing drawings and designs for some of his inventions and his handwritten notes

The page in question also features Leonardo's famous mirror handwriting, which he devised so that he could read it using a mirror

Leonardo's notebook is known to scholars as 'Codex Arundel' after its former owner, Henry Howard, 6th duke of Norfolk (died 1684). Leonardo da Vinci himself described it as 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. Many of its diagrams relate to the physical properties of water, but what has hitherto gone largely unnoticed is the drawing shown above, which some have now interpreted as an early form of egg timer.

In a forthcoming article to be published in Questa Poi, and shown exclusively to the British Library, two North American scholars, Tom Levine and Jerry Koprowicz, have demonstrated that the device in the upper right-hand corner of folio 242 verso may have been some form of primitive apparatus for timing the boiling of an egg. As Tom and Jerry conclude, it appears that sand was intended to descend from the upper to the lower chamber, via a middle capsule designed to account for variations in gravitational flow and the intercalation every 4 years of a leap second. Whether this would have enabled Leonardo to cook the perfect boiled egg remains open to question.


Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September.


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