THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

5 posts from September 2019

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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07 September 2019

Wine-making, medieval-style

Pluck. Crush. Cork. Medieval calendars remind us that September is the month for making wine. If planting and pruning vines fall to the month of March, September is the time for cashing in on all the effort.

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible

The depiction of the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible takes us closer to the toil involved in tending the vines: Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To turn grapes into wine has never been an easy task. During the summer months, the vines grow heavy with fruit. September is the time to start picking the grapes and prepare them for the arduous journey towards vinification.

The Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan

The two figures on the right are carrying a large cluster of grapes, freshly picked, illustrating the Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-33): Harley MS 4996, f. 24v

After picking the grapes, the next stage is to crush them. The evidence in medieval manuscripts is interesting. The majority of representations of wine-making involve some form of crushing the grapes. This was usually done by treading them in a large tub. It provided the model for the most enduring image of medieval vinification, that of winemakers stomping on grapes, allowing the juice to drain into a waiting basin.

Crushing tubs

Crushing tubs varied in size. Some were small enough to accommodate only one person, others large enough for several: Royal MS 2 B II, f. 5r

In medieval calendars, each month had one or several types of agricultural activities (or labours) associated with it. The 'labours of the month' were illustrated on the calendar page, one (or several) for each month. You can find out more in our article on medieval calendars. The labour of the month of September was wine-making and the associated symbol was usually the wine-press, and later the wine barrel. There was significant variation in how the wine-press was depicted, but it usually involved one or several labourers treading on grapes in a tub.

Crushing freshly-picked grapes

Crushing freshly-picked grapes was an essential stage of making wine. This illustration is from a 14th-century calendar page for September: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 79v

In an early 12th-century manuscript produced at Silos Abbey in Spain, picking the grapes and crushing them are represented as actions occurring simultaneously, a reading on a prophetic passage from the Book of Revelation:

"The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great wine-press of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the wine-press outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press [...]".  (Revelation 14:19-20).

Wine-making in Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse

Wine and wine-making are a prominent metaphor in the Book of Revelation. This manuscript of Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse conveys the drama of the biblical text with vivid colours and imagery: Add MS 11695, f. 168r

On the other hand, once the grapes are picked, it is advisable to crush them immediately — unless one is producing wine made from dried grapes through techniques which, although popular today, did not exist in the Middle Ages. Trampling the grapes was not the only way to crush them. The Romans had invented technology using mechanical pressure to crush grapes into juice. Their successors went further, developing the 'basket press'. This typically medieval wine-press used a basket made of wood staves kept together by metal rings, while a heavy disc pressed down towards the bottom of the basket, forcing the juice of the grapes to ooze out between the staves into a container.

Christ in a wine-press

This image based on the words of the Book of Revelation shows Christ in a wine-press fitted with bars which allowed a mechanism to squash the grapes into the staves of the basket: Add MS 35166

The grape juice was then poured into casks and barrels and stored, but without any preservatives such as sulfites. Because of this, the wine could easily go bad, and aging was not possible.

Filling up the barrels in a calendar

While some are tread-crushing the grapes, others fill up the barrels with juice ready for fermentation, from a 15th-century calendar for September: Add MS 18851, f. 5v

Wine had been made in western Europe before the Middle Ages. The ancient Greeks and the Romans planted most of the vines that were producing wine in the Middle Ages. Just like today, wine was consumed for the pleasure of it. An important part of its production, however, was driven by the requirements of the Mass, with wine being an essential part of Communion. Wine was biblical, liturgical, communal, bridging the gap between the sacred and the profane. A common motif was that of Christ in the wine-press, which brought together several mystical and theological insights, based on imagery from the Book of Revelation: "He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19:15).

Christ in the wine-press in a manuscript of the Apocalypse

The image of Christ in the wine-press is common in manuscripts of the Apocalypse: Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 45v

 

Cristian Ispir

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02 September 2019

King Arthur: fable, fact and fiction

King Arthur is one of our most popular heroes: noble yet flawed, a great leader (but perhaps not such a great judge of character), a brave soldier who died fighting for a noble yet hopeless cause. There are tantalising fragments of evidence that the legendary figure may be based on a real king who fought to defend Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders around the 5th-6th centuries. But was he a Celt, a Roman, a Briton or an Anglo-Saxon, and did he really take on the Anglo-Saxons?

If King Arthur existed at all, we will probably never know the truth about what he was really like. The sources that describe him were written centuries later, when his life had already turned to legend. You can read more about them in an article about King Arthur on the Polonsky Project website. But what endures about King Arthur are the many stories that people crafted about him thoughout the Middle Ages. Here we explore some of the manuscripts that contributed to the growth of Arthur’s legend.

Medeival manuscript showing a picture of King Arthur as a knight, wearing chainmail with a sword, shield and lance
Miniature of King Arthur, holding a spear and a shield emblazoned with the Virgin and Child from a historical collection including Langtoft’s chronicles: Northern England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 a ii, f. 4r

Two of the earliest accounts of King Arthur were by William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. c. 1142) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55), Anglo-Norman clerics who wrote historical chronicles in Latin in the first half of the 12th century. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain portrayed Arthur at the outset as a brave and fearsome young warrior, who dons his battle regalia (as in the image above, from Royal MS 20 a ii, which is of a later date) and defeats multiple enemies single-handedly. He established Arthur’s reputation as a powerful Christian monarch who embodies the qualities of generosity and culture, qualities demonstrated in the earliest surviving image of Arthur in a manuscript, where he is shown as a tall, venerable figure with a beard and a long robe (BnF lat. 8501A, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of a King Arthur with a long beard and robe
A portrait of Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae: Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 8501A, f. 108v

As many medieval chroniclers did, Geoffrey introduced elements from legend. For him Arthur belonged to an idealised past, peopled with dragons and the chivalrous knights and virtuous maidens of the magnificent Camelot. In contrast, William of Malmesbury was critical of the ‘fond fables which the Britons were wont to tell’, and for him Arthur was merely a ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘warlike’ leader. His Deeds of the English Kings begins with the Anglo-Saxon invasions in 449 and tells of Arthur’s single-handed defeat of 900 invaders. This copy of his work from Saint Alban’s Abbey, is decorated with initials containing a dragon, a lion and other creatures, perhaps referencing Arthur’s magical associations (BnF lat. 6047, below).

A page of text in a medieval manuscript, including a decorated initial containing a bird
An initial containing a bird, in William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum: St Alban’s abbey, last quarter of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 6047, f. 93v

Later in the 12th century, authors on both sides of the channel, including Wace, Layamon and most notably Chretien de Troyes, adapted the Arthurian legend, embellishing it with tales of Arthur’s early education by Merlin, his chivalrous exploits with Lancelot, Gawain and the knights of the Round Table, and his doomed romance with Guinevere.

The illustrations in this 14th-century English manuscript of Wace’s Roman de brut, a history of England from the time of Brutus, depict Arthur as a warrior king (Egerton MS 3028, below). Here he is shown leading the conquest of Gaul. Red-bearded and in full armour, with a fierce grimace on his face, he splits in two the head of Frollo, tribune of Gaul, with his sword.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Arthur, dressed in chainmail, slicing open the head of a knight with his sword
Arthur killing Frollo, Roman de Brut: England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 41r

Wace introduced the Round Table in his Roman de Brut, completed in 1155, and his words ‘Arthur .. bore himself so rich and noble…[and the] Round Table was ordained ….At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians and Loherins’. Here Wace brings Europe’s leaders to his table, portraying Arthur as not only an inspiring and fair ruler, but an international statesman of note.

Three women lead Percival by the hand to King Arthur, who is seated at a table
Perceval is brought to Arthur at the Round Table (although the rubric specifies ‘table roonde’ the artist has depicted the table as long and narrow), from the Lancelot-Grail: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 376r

But there is a dark side to Arthur in de Boron’s Roman du Graal, as illustrated in a manuscript of this work (Add MS 38117, below). Wanting to rid his kingdom of the evil Mordred, his son conceived by incest, Arthur finds all the children born on the same day and sets them adrift in a boat, sending them to a certain death by drowning.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and a group of people watching as a boat full of small children drifts out to sea
King Arthur setting infants adrift in a boat from Robert de Boron, Suite de Merlin: Northern France (Arras?), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 97v

All the stories about King Arthur and his court were brought together in the early 13th century in the monumental prose version known as the Vulgate Cycle. It was a medieval literary phenomenon, surviving in around eighty manuscripts from the 13th to the 15th century. This illuminated manuscript of the work shows Arthur as a humble young squire, drawing the sword from the stone (Add MS 10292, below).

Medieval manuscript showing a group of people gathered outside a church, with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone
Arthur draws the sword from the stone, from the Lancelot-Grail Vulgate Cycle: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 99r
Medieval manuscript showing a group of nobles feasting
Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere at Camelot in Lancelot du Lac England, S. (Pleshey castle): c. 1360- c. 1380, Royal 20 D IV, f. 1r

The doomed love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot leads to the king’s ultimate downfall and he is seen as gullible, though not blameless in the situation that develops. In the image above, set at Camelot, he is the gracious and dutiful king (on the right), seated beside Guinevere, their arms entwined, and in another episode from the story (on the left), Lancelot and Guinevere conduct their intrigues behind his back (Royal MS 20 D IV).

Lydgate’s 15th-century work, The Fall of Princes, based on a work by Boccaccio, includes Arthur as an example of how the mighty fall. This manuscript shows Arthur, victorious, slaughtering his enemies on one page, and on the next is an image of his tomb at Avalon (Harley MS 1766, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and his followers over a pile of dead bodies
King Arthur slaying heathens, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 218r
Medieval mauscript with a picture of a pink carved tomb inside a church
King Arthur's tomb, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 219r

Although we will never know who Arthur really was, the adaptability of his legend allowed him to remain relevant throughout the Middle Ages and to continue to capture people’s imagination to this day.

A number of manuscripts featuring King Arthur from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including three of those pictured above, have recently been digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and early accounts of Arthur’s reign are highlighted in an article about the legend of King Arthur on the project website.

 

Chantry Westwell

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