THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from September 2019

30 September 2019

Middle English manuscripts online

The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of manuscripts written in Middle English. Thanks to a very generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, we have recently been able to digitize a sizeable number of them, the first batch of which can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. They range from copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and from texts relating to veterinary medicine to the Chronicle of London. We hope that our readers enjoy exploring them online; there are more to come, so keep an eye on this Blog and on our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval) for further announcements.

We are extremely grateful to our friends at the ATBL for supporting this project. We know that it will make a major difference to everyone who works on these texts, and on medieval literary culture in general. Please let us know if this has inspired you, or if you have made notable findings as a result of this digitisation.

A monk kneels before a bishop

A monk kneeling before a bishop, in The Weye of Paradys: Harley MS 1671, f. 1r 

 

Here is a list of the manuscripts we have recently made available online.

Harley MS 172: Devotional manuscript written by the 'Winchester scribe', principal scribe of the 'Winchester Anthology' (Add MS 60577), including Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son; Benedict Burgh, English translation of Cato Major; John Lydgate, Ryght as a Rammes Horne; Thomas Hoccleve, Ars Sciendi Mori

Harley MS 271: The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior

Harley MS 372: John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; A prayer to the Virgin Mary; A prayer to St Sebastian; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; Poem against excess in apparel; Latin tract about the qualities necessary for a priest

Harley MS 525: Miscellany of Middle English romances containing The Seege of Troy, Robert of Cisyle, and Speculum Gy de Warewyke

The beginning of the Chronicle of London

Chronicle of London, from the coronation of Richard I in 1189 to 1443, in the reign of Henry VI: Harley MS 565, f. 10r

Harley MS 565: Chronicle of London; 'The Expedition of Henry V into France'; John Lydgate, 'King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London'

Harley MS 629: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 875: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman

Harley MS 913: The Kildare Lyrics (in Latin, English and French), including the Land of Cokaygne

Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

The opening page of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

lHarley MS 1239: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and The Franklin's Tale

Harley MS 1671: The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)

Harley MS 1701: Robert Mannyng of Brunne, King Robert of Sicily, 'Handlyng Synne'; 'Medytacyouns of the soper of oure Lorde'; King Robert's romance in couplets

Harley MS 2338: Thomas Breus, Religious text in verse, mainly on the Passion

Harley MS 2382: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Assumption of Our Lady; Prayer to the Virgin from the Speculum Christiani; John Lydgate, Testament; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale; Life of Saint Erasmus; Long Charter of Christ; Childe of Bristowe; an animal prophecy of Merlin

A decorated page in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady

John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in a manuscript which belonged to John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford (1442–1513): Harley MS 3862, f. 1r

Harley MS 3862: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 3943: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Harley MS 4912: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

A treatise on equine medicine

A treatise on equine medicine with the added title ‘The boke of medycen for horsses and to know of what Cuntrey the best horses be bredin contaynyng 30 leves’: Harley MS 5086, f. 99r

Harley MS 5086: Miscellany of verse and prose treatises relating to hunting, manners, medicine and veterinary medicine, including a translation of Gaston Phebus's 'Livre de Chasse', in the Middle English translation by Edward of Norwich entitled 'Master of the Game', a dietary for King Henry V and a treatise on equine medicine

Harley MS 6041: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman; form of confession in Middle English prose

 

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26 September 2019

Discovering Sacred Texts launch

This week the British Library has launched its latest online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collections. The new website includes over 250 digitised collection items, teachers’ resources, short films and articles. Nine faiths are featured: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism.

Discovering Sacred Texts also includes many spectacular medieval manuscripts. For our readers, here’s a handy guide to some of the specially written articles focusing on pre-1600 western manuscripts on the site.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus with four columns of stately Greek script.
The Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, Eastern Mediterranean, early 4th century: Add MS 43725, f. 244v

The Christian Bible is formed of numerous books that were written over hundreds of years. Early Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures, which they characterised as the Old Testament, and added to them a collection of texts recounting the lives and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers, called the New Testament. At first, the Christian Bible circulated in Greek but before long it was translated into a wide variety of languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic and Latin.

Find out more about the formation and spread of the Christian Bible in The Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A page from a Greek manuscript with dashes and other small lines around the words
Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation, Eastern Mediterranean or Southern Italy, late 10th century: Arundel MS 547, f. 9r

Copies of the entire Bible were rare for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Portions of the Bible, such as the Gospels, Psalms and Apocalypse, were regularly produced as separate volumes. The text was often shaped to suit the readers’ needs. For example, passages might be re-ordered to form a lectionary, combined to produce a harmonised text, or paraphrased as a summary version.

Explore the different contents and uses of biblical manuscripts in Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A decorated manuscript showing scenes of Christ and the Apostles
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, f. 28r

Unlike in other Abrahamic religions, Christian sacred texts were often produced with extensive illustrations. The Church justified images as a useful tool for teaching people about scripture. Rich decoration could also emphasise the importance of the biblical text itself, with shimmering gold evoking the glory of heaven. Decorated letters, either with abstract or figurative designs, might also serve the practical purpose of marking the beginnings of texts.

Learn more about the development and functions of images in medieval biblical manuscripts in Biblical Illumination, by Kathleen Doyle.

A decorated page with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and below inside the decorated intial, a picture of a woman praying
The Annunciation with a patron portrait, the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, 15th century, England: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 34r

The most popular book of the late Middle Ages was the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book for the laity. While their contents vary, the prayers often focus on the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, with shorter prayers included for a wide variety of saints. Many Books of Hours also include images, both to appeal to the eye and to deepen the spiritual experience of prayer. Often, they were carefully customised to reflect their owner's personal interests.

Discover the different texts and images that appear in Books of Hours in Medieval prayer-books, by Eleanor Jackson.

A text page with large initials and a border decorated with flowers and vines
Wycliffite Bible, England, Early 15th century: Arundel MS 104, f. 251r

The Bible was translated into a wide range of languages from an early date. The oldest known translation of a biblical text into English is the Old English translation of the Psalms added between the lines of the Vespasian Psalter in the mid-9th century. The entire Bible was first translated into English by the followers of the reformer John Wycliffe in the last decades of the 14th century, at which point it provoked considerable controversy.

Find out more about medieval translations of the Bible in The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity, by Annie Sutherland.

The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. On the lower right a monk kneels in prayer.
Coldingham Breviary, England, 1270-80: Harley MS 4664, f. 125r

Women played an important role in Christianity from the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and three women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ served as exemplars of holiness and were often depicted in medieval manuscripts.

Learn more about attitudes to women in Women and Christianity, by Christine Joynes.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Christ, covered in bloody wounds, kneeling before his tomb. In the lower margin there is a handwritten note.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

King Henry VIII formally broke with the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the decades that followed, the dissolution of the monasteries and programmes of Protestant reform led to the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts. Yet Henry himself remained devoted to medieval religious traditions and he owned a large number of Latin devotional manuscripts.

Learn more about Henry’s manuscripts and the consequences of his break with the Roman Church in Henry VIII and the Reformation, by Susan Doran.

A group photo, standing outside the Library's Treasures Gallery
Some of the British Library's curators at the Discovering Sacred Texts launch event on Monday

As well as these ancient and medieval-focused articles, there are lots of other fascinating articles about the Library’s diverse collection on the Discovering Sacred Texts web-space. We hope you enjoy exploring!

 

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24 September 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: from manuscript to print

The technique of printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in the decade before Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was born; as he reached his teens the new technology had already spread to Italy, thanks largely to the southwards emigration of German printers. Over the following decades increasing numbers of books were printed in a large number of cities and towns across the Italian peninsula.  With his vast written output — it’s estimated he produced 28,000 pages of writing, of which only about 25% survives today — Leonardo was a significant ‘author’ by any standards, but to what extent was he aware of printing? Did he ever intend to publish the various investigations he undertook throughout his career?

Melzi's portrait of Leonardo

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his pupil, Francesco Melzi

Leonardo had an intense interest in machines of all kinds and spent a lot of his time inventing new ones, both on paper and as actual constructions. It seems unlikely that the printing press, one of the dominant new technologies of the time, would have escaped his attention. The two cities where he spent his first fifty years — Florence, where he trained as an artist and embarked on his career, and Milan, where he worked at the Sforza court for nearly two decades — would have given him ample opportunity to visit printing shops and see how they organised their work. A drawing in the Codex Atlanticus shows us his improved version of a printing press, which would in effect have semi-automated the process and meant that only one ‘pressman’, rather than the normal pair, would have been needed to operate the machine. Curiously, there seems to be no reference in any of Leonardo’s work to Gutenberg’s principal invention of moveable type (the printing press itself was merely a variant of a wine or olive press, machines which had been familiar for many centuries). If Leonardo did ever visit a printing house, it is intriguing to speculate what might have run through his mind as he watched compositors setting type line by line exactly as he himself wrote by hand, in ‘mirror script’, going from right to left, and reversing all the letters.  

Clearer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in printed books comes from his library. The majority of volumes mentioned in his several surviving lists of the books which belonged to him at various points are printed ones. They are surprisingly eclectic — editions of chivalric romances and other contemporary vernacular literature, translations of Greek and Latin authors, religious texts, scientific treatises and manuals and introductory works on the subjects and topics which interested him or which he felt he needed to master as part of his scientific investigations. They also reflect the widening range of the emergent publishing industry and its markets.

It is not known whether Leonardo ever planned to produce printed editions of his writings on the various subjects on which he intended to write ‘treatises’, such as the ‘Book on Water’ which forms the core of the Codex Leicester recently displayed at the British Library. But there’s no evidence that he wanted to keep them secret. His mirror script, once believed to be a kind of encryption, is now thought simply to reflect the way Leonardo, as a left-hander, found it most comfortable to write. In the more finished notebooks, such as Codex Leicester or many sheets in Codex Arundel, there is a clear attempt on Leonardo’s part to design a clear and readable page layout, with a block of text and a wide margin with drawings and other notes alongside or even keyed into the main content. Within that content, there is often an implied interlocutor or potential/eventual reader in the way he frames his discussion of a topic. It is more probable — and characteristic of Leonardo’s working practices in general — that his notes on various subjects never attained the kind of order and arrangement which would have been necessary if they were ever going to make the transition to published texts.

The spheres of manuscript and print continued to interact in unexpected ways during what can be called the long afterlife of Leonardo’s notebooks. Two items in the last section of the British Library exhibition gave an intriguing glimpse into the continuing complexities of this relationship as far as Leonardo’s writings are concerned, showing how interest in Leonardo’s scientific thinking remained alive over subsequent centuries thanks to various networks of scholars and collectors. Both texts relate to the work of arranging and compiling the notebooks according to subject after Leonardo’s death in 1519, which was started by Francesco Melzi, the pupil to whom he had bequeathed his manuscripts, and continued by other scholars after their dispersal following Melzi’s death in 1570, most significantly in Rome (where many notebooks had ended up) at the beginning of the 17th century.

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua (Bologna: a spese di Francesco Cardinale, 1828)

Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua [‘On the Motion and Measurement of Water’] was published by Francesco Cardinale in Bologna in 1828, over 300 years after Leonardo’s death, as part of a multi-volume collection of works by Italian authors on water. Cardinale worked from a copy of a manuscript which had been compiled in the 1630s for the collection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597–1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, by the Dominican monk Luigi Maria Arconati, whose father owned eleven manuscripts by Leonardo, today in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In arranging his compilation of Leonardo’s notes, Arconati found a model in a recent publication on the subject, Bernardo Castelli’s Della misura dell’Acque correnti, published in Rome in 1628 and dedicated to Urban VIII (Castelli, a Benedictine abbot, is described on the title-page as the Pope’s official mathematician).

A manuscripts copy of leonardo's Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura

In the case of the second item, King's MS 284, the thread of transmission from Leonardo’s originals is even more complicated. It contains what is perhaps the most important of these posthumous thematic compilations, the Trattato della Pittura or treatise on painting. This work was initiated by Melzi, who, with collaborators, worked systematically through the notebooks in his possession; the resulting text, now Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library, was never completed; but it became the source (although the manuscript itself disappeared from view for over two centuries) for numerous later abbreviated manuscript versions. It is once again in Rome in the 1630s that a new wave of systematic work on the text, following on from Melzi, was undertaken, again drawing on the collection of Arconati’s father, in preparation for the publication of two printed editions, in the Italian original and French translation, in Paris in 1651. The British Library manuscript is a copy of this printed edition together with the illustrations based on Nicolas Poussin’s drawings for the Paris edition.

These complex trajectories from manuscript to print and back again reflect and continue what can be seen as the intrinsic complications of Leonardo’s relationship as a writer to publication and to his readers.

 

Stephen Parkin

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20 September 2019

Mapping medieval Scotland: between politics and imagination

It is unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising, that the earliest surviving topographical map of Scotland should be one designed for invasion. Some of the most accurate maps of pre-modern Europe were made in the context of trade or war, profit or conflict, two operations that required considerable precision. In this particular case, the conflict was the Anglo-Scottish Wars of the 15th century, with the map sitting at the very centre of the long-standing tensions between the two kingdoms. Its maker was a soldier-spy named John Hardyng (1378–1465), who was sent by King Henry V to Scotland on a reconnaissance mission. His primary goal was to collect tactical information about the country in order to plan an attack.

John Hardyng's original map of Scotland

The first version of Hardyng’s chronicle is preserved only in this manuscript, which contains a full-colour map of Scotland; West is at the top: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.

The outcome of Hardyng’s mission was a chronicle in Middle English verse, completed in 1457. It extended from the mythical foundations of Britain to 1437, and included a detailed map of southern and northern Scotland. There had been other maps which included Scotland, but Hardyng’s were unique. What is remarkable about them is that they focus on Scotland. This might seem insignificant, but in the medieval period it was not at all common to zoom in on a given area. While most other maps show Scotland as the northern part of Britain, Hardyng’s map turned a macro lens on the territory of the Scottish kingdom.

Close-up of Hardyng's first map

A close-up of the first version of Hardyng's map reveals the amazing detail of his cartographic representation: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.

Having incorporated the results of his espionage in the chronicle, he presented its first version in turn to Kings Henry VI and Edward IV. Hardyng wanted these maps to provide visual support for the strategic planning outlined in the chronicle. As Sarah Peverley has argued, they are more symbolic than tactical, since they offer information about the general state of the country.

Hardyng’s chronicle survives in two versions, an earlier and a later one, each with its own map of Scotland. The two versions of the chronicle are noticeably different. The later version is shorter, more political, but also more popular and more influential than its predecessor. It was this version that was consulted by Shakespeare and John Milton.

The first page of Hardyng's Chronicle

The second version of Hardyng's Chronicle is preserved in 12 manuscripts and traces the history of Britain back to an imagined past: Harley MS 661, f. 1r.

The Scottish map of the second version of the chronicle is more diagrammatic and more intriguing. Like the earlier version, it represents Scottish topography in remarkable detail, with towns, castles, churches and natural features like rivers and marshes. However, it also inter-weaves the text and diagrams in order to explain the significance of many Scottish localities.

Map showing Scottish castles, churches and cities

This map shows a high variety of southern Scottish castles, churches, walled cities and other fortifications.

This three-page map includes both southern and northern Scotland. While the southern part is packed with towns and fortifications, the northern parts are represented differently. The region between the mormaerdoms (medieval Scottish counties) of Strathern and Ros, the larger part of the Scottish Highlands, is represented using text and diagrams. The Highlands are referred to as the lands inhabited by the ‘wilde Scottes’. The map depicts the various mormaerdoms as protected by river courses and flanked by two seas, the Mare Orientale (North Sea) and the Mare Occidentale (the Atlantic). For example, ‘the shires of Marre (Mar) and of Carriocth (Carioch) aff this cuntrey stondeth between two waters'.

Map of the Highlands of Scotland

This map of the Highlands of Scotland has South at the top. It provides an overview of the locations of all the major Scottish shires: Harley MS 661, f. 187v.

But there is something rotten in the North of Scotland. At the far end of Britain, beyond the Orkney Islands, Hardyng located Satan’s infernal abode, the palace of doom. According to the English spy-soldier, the more one moved away from England, the more savage and devilish the inhabitants became, culminating in the source of all evil, at the ends of the Earth, under Scotland’s (and Satan’s) dominion.

Satan's palace in Hardyng's chronicle

This diagram of Northern Scotland explains that 'the wilde Scotrie have their propre mancion' in Pluto (or Satan's) palace: Harley MS 661, f. 188r.

Surrounded by the four infernal rivers (Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus and Acheron), Satan’s diagrammatic seat of power was a metaphor for Hardyng’s view that the 'wickedness' of the Scots was attributable to Satanic influence.

If you would like to read more about Hardyng’s Chronicle, we would highly recommend these by Sarah Peverley:

https://sarahpeverley.com/2014/09/18/medieval-maps-of-scotland/

https://sarahpeverley.com/2014/04/14/on-his-majestys-secret-service-henry-vs-spy-and-scottish-independence/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03f8c54

https://www.medievalists.net/2015/11/john-hardyng-and-his-chronicle/

 

Cristian Ispir

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17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

Biblical manuscripts were essential to all aspects of Christian religious life in the Middle Ages. They were studied as the cornerstone of education, read aloud from the altar, carried in processions and displayed as emblems of the Word of God. Often they are exceptionally beautiful, with the finest artisans, best materials and most reverent care devoted to their creation.

In the run up to the launch of the Library’s new Discovering Sacred Texts resource later this month, we have put some of our stunning biblical manuscripts on display in the Treasures Gallery. Let us take you on a virtual tour to explore the variety and sophistication of these medieval sacred texts.

A text page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, beginning with the decorated initials ‘MAT’ made up of twisting animal forms, and continuing in a bold rounded script.
The prologue (argumentum) to the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lindisfarne Gospels: Lindisfarne, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 18v

In the early Middle Ages, copies of the entire Bible were rare. A church’s most sacred manuscript was more usually a Gospel Book, a copy of the Four Gospels written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the most famous of these is the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was probably created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, as a solitary work of painstaking devotion. The Gospel text is a particularly accurate version of the Latin Vulgate Bible produced by St Jerome, copied from an exemplar that was probably brought from Italy by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow. But the Lindisfarne Gospels’ text is doubly special. In the 10th century a priest called Aldred added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English.

An opening in the Cologne Gospels. On the left page is a frame containing silver writing on a purple background; on the right page is a picture of a seated man with a beard, long robe and large halo, holding a pen and a book, looking at an open book on a stand.
Evangelist portrait of St Matthew, the Cologne Gospels: Cologne, Germany, last quarter of the 11th century, Harley MS 2820, f. 14r

Medieval artists experimented with different ways of decorating the Gospels. Often each Gospel text opened with an ‘Evangelist portrait’ of its writer, based on the Classical author portraits sometimes included in ancient manuscripts. This magnificent example belongs to the ‘Cologne school’ of manuscript illumination, which was characterised by rich painterly decoration. St Matthew is depicted pen in hand, writing his Gospel. On the opposite page, a biographical poem about the Evangelist is written in silver on purple-stained parchment and surrounded by an acanthus-leaf border in imitation of imperial books from ancient Rome.

The beginning of a text with a miniature of three scenes contained inside a tall arched frame. The upper scene shows Christ’s empty tomb, the middle scene shows three women kneeling before Christ, the lower miniature shows a lion with its cubs flanked by two prophets holding scrolls.
Opening to the Gospel of Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Floreffe, modern Belgium, c. 1170, Add MS 17738, vol. II, f. 179v

In the monasteries and great churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a revived interest in giant multi-volume copies of the entire Latin Bible. The monumental format of these manuscripts made them impressive symbols of the Word of God. This Bible from the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe in south-eastern Belgium measures 480 x 335 mm and fills two heavy volumes.

The Floreffe Bible takes an allegorical approach to illustrating the Gospels. Each Gospel text begins with a series of images exploring the relationship between the symbol of its Evangelist and an aspect of Christ’s life. Here at the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, two scenes from Christ’s Resurrection—the Three Marys discovering the empty tomb and then encountering the risen Christ—are depicted along with St Mark's lion symbol, who is shown guarding three small lion cubs. This pairing emphasises the theological link between St Mark’s lion and Christ’s Resurrection, since it was traditionally believed that lion cubs are brought to life when their father roars over them, just as God the Father resurrected Christ.

Opening to a text with a large letter I containing eight medallions, the first seven showing scenes from the Creation of the world and the eighth showing the Crucifixion.
Opening to the reading for the Mass on Christmas Day: Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

Passages from the Gospels were read every day in church services, with particular readings assigned for the feasts throughout the year. In Gospel Lectionaries, Gospel passages are arranged in the order they were read in the Church calendar, rather than in chapter order. This exquisite Gospel Lectionary comes from Sainte-Chapelle, the royal palace chapel in Paris. This page shows the beginning of the Gospel of John which was read during the Mass on Christmas Day. The decorated letter I (for In principio, ‘in the beginning’) depicts God creating the world and Christ dying on the Cross. As such, it illustrates the opening words of the Gospel which describe how the Word of God created all things and became flesh in Christ.

You can come and admire all these spectacular manuscripts for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. And watch this space for more content about our medieval sacred texts coming soon.

Eleanor Jackson

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13 September 2019

Gardeners' Question Time

Today's episode of BBC Radio 4' popular Gardeners' Question Time (repeated on Sunday at 14:00) was recorded here at the British Library.

If you listen carefully, as well as hearing Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and James Wong discussing the size of someone's melons, you may catch our curators Julian Harrison and Maddie Smith introducing some of the nation's favourite herbals. Julian showed presenter Matt Biggs pages from the Old English illustrated herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III). Sadly, this manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, but Matt and Julian discussed how it contains an important record of early plant lore. Some of the plants it illustrates were not native to early medieval England, indicating that this book was based on earlier texts compiled around the Mediterranean. Matt was fascinated in particular with the accuracy of the drawings: he recognized this depiction of brassica without being able to read the original Old English text.

A page from the Old English herbal, showing brassica on the right

A plant of the brassica family in the Old English illustrated herbal: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 56v

Julian also showed Matt this early 16th-century German herbal (Harley MS 3736), which has a series of idiosyncratic illustrations. You may have come across the manuscript before as it was open (on the mandrake page) in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The page shown here depicts what was once thought to be the Emperor Charlemagne (died 814) kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow. The plant is named 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised him to eat it in order to be purged of poison. Since the recording, we have realised that the genus 'Carlina' was actually named in honour of Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–1556), and this helps us to date the manuscript with more accuracy.

The Emperor Charles kneeling before a plant

The Emperor Charles and 'Carlina' in Giovanni Cadamasto's herbal: Harley MS 3736, f. 20r

Maddie presented the story of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, made in the 1730s in order to fund her husband's release from a debtors' prison. You can read more about the story of Elizabeth Blackwell on our Treasures pages.

Gardener's Question Time is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 13 September (15:00), repeated on Sunday, 15 September.

 

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10 September 2019

A starry night, the Trojan horse and a spinning top

We have been adding to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for over 15 years. This week 25 new manuscripts make their first appearance, each with a selection of spectacular images to view and download. Which are your favourites?

Our nomination among the newcomers, amid very tough competition, is the Breviary of Jean sans Peur (Add MS 35311). We particularly like this miniature of the Virgin and angels, in a jewelled sky above a toy ship in a turquoise sea. John ‘the Fearless’, its owner, was Duke of Burgundy from 1404 until 1419. His Breviary was divided in two; the companion volume is also in our collections (Harley MS 2897).

A ship in a turquoise sea

A miniature of a sailing ship at sea with sailors looking up at the Virgin, Child and angels, from the Breviary of Jean sans Peur, Paris, 1413–1419: Add MS 35311, f. 348v

Coming a close second is this version of the Troy legend, by Guido delle Colonne. According to Historia Destructionis Troiae, the Greeks entered the city after the Trojans had demolished part of the wall to allow in the horse. Hiding inside the horse, a certain Sinon gave the signal to the Greek army to enter the city once the Trojans were asleep.

The Trojan Horse

The Trojans breaking the city walls to let in the horse, from the Historia Destructionis Troiae, Venice, 14th century: Add MS 15477, f. 49v

Sibylla von Bondorff was a nun of the Minorite Order of St Clare in the Freiburg area of Germany. She is known to have illustrated at least 4 books, including two in the British Library. A manuscript of the Rule of St Clare illustrated by Sibylla has also been added to the catalogue: Add MS 15686.

St Bonaventure at his writing desk

St Bonaventure is seated at a writing desk, a book open before him and a pen in his hand; divine inspiration aids him, depicted in the form of a dove; a vision of the stigmatised St Francis flanked by angels appears before him, in the Life of St Francis, S.W. Germany, 1478: Add MS 15710, f. 4r 

This work of saints’ Lives by Jean Beleth contains 154 legends, each with at least one miniature. It includes a number of Welsh and Breton saints, as well as the Irish St Brendan.

St Theophilus and the Devil

St Theophilus and the Devil; on the left, Theophilus surrenders his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth; on the right the Virgin takes back his deed of surrender from the Devil, from Jean Beleth, Vie des Saints, Paris, 1325–1340: Add MS 17275, f. 29v

The decorated borders of this stunning Book of Hours from Bruges contain a wide variety of identifiable flowers and insects.

The saints adoring the lamb

The saints including St Francis adoring the lamb; a scatter border with flowers and a cricket, incorporating two roundels showing kneeling apostles and martyrs, from a Book of Hours, Bruges, 1480–1489: Add MS 17280, f. 77v 

This charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours shows the family life of Jesus, with Joseph working in his carpenter’s shop, Mary sewing and the young boy playing with a spinning top.

The family life of Jesus

The Holy Family at the beginning of Nones in the Hours of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Cataluña, 15th century: Add MS 18193, f. 48v 

Every page in the ‘London Psalter’ (or ‘Scandinavian Psalter’) has marginalia, with a variety of creatures up to all sorts, including this ape playing a musical instrument.

The Beatus initial

'B'(eatus) initial at the beginning of Psalm 1 with King David playing the harp and cutting off Goliath's head; human, animals and hybrid creatures with swords, bows and musical instruments, from a Psalter, Central France, c. 1255: Add MS 17868, f. 32r

This 10th-century collection of the Lives and Passions of the most important Hispanic saints in the 10th century is thought to have originated at the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos.

A zoomorphic letter B

Zoomorphic initial, 'B'(eati), at the beginning of the lives and passion of SS Julianus, Basilissus and companions, from a Passional, Burgos, 919: Add MS 25600, f. 81.

This two-volume set of Gratian's Decretum contains a note in the Catalan language at the end of the second volume (Add MS 15275).

The Pope enthroned

The Pope enthroned, with an assembly including an emperor with an arch-topped crown, three kings or princes, two cardinals and two bishops, with academic clerics in front of them. In the historiated initials are a cleric writing and a figure holding an open book; evangelist symbols, animals and birds in the border, Barcelona, 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 3r

 

Here are links to all the manuscripts recently added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Items marked with an asterisk can also be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Add MS 10104: Polychronicon; Chronicle of Adam Usk

Add MS 11850: Preaux Gospels*

Add MS 11852: Pauline Epistles

Add MS 13961: Abregé des Chroniques de France

Add MS 15248: Bible moralisée*

Add MS 15274: Gratian's Decretum (vol. 1)

Add MS 15275: Gratian's Decretum (vol. 2)

Add MS 15477: Historia Destructionis Troiae

Add MS 15686: Rule of St Clare

Add MS 15710: Life of St Francis 

Add MS 15749: Prayers and meditations of Anselm, Augustine and Bernard

Add MS 17275: Jean Beleth, Vie des Saints

Add MS 17280: Book of Hours

Add MS 17868: 'London Psalter'

Add MS 18193: Book of Hours

Add MS 18851: Breviary of Isabella of Castille*

Add MS 18852: Hours of Joanna of Castille*

Add MS 18855: Book of Hours with leaves from a calendar by Simon Bening*

Add MS 25600: Passional

Add MS 35311: Breviary of Jean sans Peur 

Add MS 36619: Ordinance of Charles the Bold

Add MS 62925: Rutland Psalter*

Add MS 89379: The Percy Hours*

Egerton MS 3018: Missal of Cologne*

Harley MS 7353: Edward IV Roll*

Sloane MS 2593: Carols and songs

 

Chantry Westwell

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08 September 2019

The art of the alphabet poem

On International Literacy Day (8 September), we look at how medieval and early modern scribes and artists celebrated the Latin alphabet through art and poetry. Decorated alphabets were central to medieval ‘alphabet books’. These are ‘pattern books’ that feature alphabets written or drawn in different fonts and featuring various styles of decoration. Their purpose is debated, but one explanation is that artists used them for promoting their skills among potential clients, or for recording interesting designs they found in other manuscripts. For example, the 'Macclesfield Alphabet Book' (Add MS 88887) ─ one of two surviving English alphabet books (the other one is Sloane MS 1448A) ─ contains fourteen different types of decorative alphabets.

Image 1 - Macclesfield Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces (England, 1475–1525): Add MS 88887, ff. 3v–4r

Similar alphabets were known to or designed by the German artist and scribe Johann Holtman, who produced an alphabet book (Add MS 31845) in 1529.

Image 2- German Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces and animals (Germany, 1529): Add MS 31845, ff. 9v–10r

Decorated alphabets could also be combined with poetry. The ‘abecedarium’, a poem in which the first letters of each line or stanza together form the letters of the alphabet, was a form often used by medieval poets. Geoffrey Chaucer, the most renowned medieval English poet, himself wrote an ‘ABC hymn to the Virgin’ (see Harley MS 2251). Early modern artist-scribes also used this form, but put more emphasis on the alphabet poem’s visual display. First of all, they drew their initials at an enormous size, dedicating an entire page to each initial. Secondly, they decorated them extravagantly using a great variety of patterns and figures. Another distinct feature of their poems is that they are unique: only originals – no copies – survive. One example is a 16th-century Dutch alphabet poem (Add MS 24898):

Image 3 - Dutch poem [1]-min

Image 4 - Dutch poem [2]-min

Image 5 - Dutch poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, ff. 1r, 2r, 4r

The initials reflect the poem’s religious themes. For example, its often-repeated motif of a stork eating a snake draws its meaning from medieval bestiaries. These use the stork’s enmity towards the snake as an example for the righteous who, likewise, should be the enemies of evil thoughts (‘snakes’). The poem was created by an artist-scribe who identifies himself on the page that is dedicated to the letter ‘D’. In the initial, he inscribed his name (‘Marcus van Yperen’) with the date 25 August 1560 in a banderole that is suitably wrapped around two quills and a quill knife.  

Image 6 - Dutch poem [4]-min

Poem for the letter ‘D’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, f. 5r

Another alphabet poem entitled Pennarum Nitor or The Pens Excellency (Add MS 36991) was created by Joseph Lawson in 1608. Here, each page presents two versions of the same letter of the alphabet, each with its own ‘poem’. The upper one is decorated in the style of a medieval manuscript, whereas the lower one is in a typographical style. The texts on these pages have no apparent connection with one another. For example, the two texts for the letter ‘A’ are legal and religious:

‘All men shall knowe by these presentes that I Robert Watersonne of ffelmingham in the Countie of Norffolk am indebted and doe owe unto L. Maine […]’.

‘A man of might if that thou bee give not thy minde I say unto a whore of no degree marke this I doe thee pray, for in the scripture thou shalt read if that thou marke it well the whordome is the ready way to lead the into hell’.

Image 7 - Lawson's alphabet poem [1]-min

Image 8 - Lawson's alphabet poem [2]-min

Image 9 - Lawson's alphabet poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (England, 1609): Add MS 36991, ff. 17r, 18r, 19r

A final example of a decorated alphabet poem comes from a mid 17th-century English manuscript (Harley MS 1704). The artist-scribe may have created it for a ‘Robert Clare’ of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire: the latter’s name features in the ‘poem’ — which is more like a draft for a legal document — for the letter ‘B’. The manuscript also features inscriptions by Robert Clare himself, indicating that he came to own the poem after it was finished. The first one begins:

‘All men are wormes, but this no man in silk / twas brought to taugt first wrapt and white as milk / where afterwards it grew a butterfli which was a caterpiller [...]’.

Image 10- HarleyAlphabet Poem [1]-min

Image 11 - Harley Alphabet Poem [2]-min

Image 12 - Harley-Alphabet Poem [3]-min

An English alphabet poem (England, c. 1650): Harley MS 1704, ff. 144r, 145r, 146r

Medieval alphabet books and early modern alphabet poems may have fulfilled a similar purpose. Christopher de Hamel has suggested that alphabet books may not be practical books created by artists for their own use after all. Perhaps, he argues, they represent a way of analysing and visually displaying the world that is inherent to the ‘genre’ of alphabet books. Likewise, decorated alphabet poems encapsulate various aspects of the world, covering, for example, literary, religious, and legal subjects. Their initials reflect this in the multitude of human figures, animals and hybrid figures that inhabit them.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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