Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from April 2020

30 April 2020

A history of the book in seven objects

Books surround us. We have them in our homes, kitchens, beds and bathrooms. Supplied by bookstores and libraries, we can even read them on our kindles and phones or listen to them through earphones. What we may not realise, however, is that whenever we open a book, we are taking part in a history stretching back millennia.

On the first anniversary of the opening of our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition, we are exploring seven objects that represent some of the key stages in the development of the book in the ancient era, leading to the form of book as we know it.

Roman fresco showing ancient writing materials
Roman fresco from Pompeii showing ancient writing materials, a scraper, booklet of wax tablets, inkpot and pen, and papyrus roll: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Inventory number 4676

1.) Books carved in stone

It is with stone inscriptions that the evolution of writing started in many cultures and, together with it, the story of the book. This inscription, carved on a limestone plaque in Egypt about 3600 years ago, is the earliest “book” in the British Library. It was discovered recently and displayed for the first time at the Library’s Writing: Making your Mark exhibition. The stone preserves a hymn written in hieroglyphs to praise Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld and king of the dead.

Ancient Egyptian inscribed stone tablet
Limestone stela bearing a hymn to the god Osiris written in classical hieroglyphs 3,600 years ago: Talbot Stela 6 (Egypt, Abydos ca. 1600 BC)

2.) Books inked on pottery

A major step in the transition from stone to page was a new invention which has become the material manifestation of writing for thousands of years: ink. Using ink made writing easier and faster. As a result, more people started to write and with writing’s spread the format of books also changed. Ink was first applied on stone but people soon realised that it could be used on smoother, smaller and more manageable surfaces. From the 3rd century BC, fragments of broken dishes were used for writing short and perishable texts, such as receipts, drafts and notes.

Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC
Broken potsherd bearing three lines of Greek text written with ink to testify that Pamyt has paid for fishing tax in 255BC: Ostracon 12634 (Egypt, 255 BC)

This little pottery shard contains a fishing permit written with ink by an Egyptian clerk for a man called Pamyt about 2250 years ago, allowing him to fish in the Nile. This kind of handy, ink-inscribed document made writing widely available throughout society.

3.) Books written on scrolls

Writing on stone, pottery or even bone was very efficient, but these items were not big enough to record longer texts. The solution was provided by papyrus rolls. Papyrus is named after the papyrus reed, growing in the marshes of Egypt. The fibres of this plant were soaked and pressed together to create sheets of approximately our A4-A3 format, which were pasted together to form a roll. These rolls were of varying sizes and could even reach 30 metres in length, capable of containing thousands of lines of text.

Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long
Portions from Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad in a deluxe papyrus scroll of about 230cm long: Papyrus 114 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

One of the British Library’s longest undivided papyrus scrolls is a beautiful deluxe copy of a portion from Homer’s Iliad which is over 230cm long. The scroll provides an excellent example of the standard layout of Greek and Latin texts for more than a millennium. Written in parallel columns across the sheets, a papyrus scroll would usually contain one large unit (“a book”, in Greek biblion) of a work. In ancient libraries, scrolls were stored rolled up on a shelf with a leather label (sillybos) identifying the title of the book, which functioned in the same way as titles printed on the spines of our books today.

The papyrus scroll was the default format of book across the Mediterranean for more than two millennia, recording texts not only in Greek and Latin but also in Egyptian or Hebrew. However, there was a new invention in the making that would revolutionize the book’s history – and that was the codex.

4.) Booklets of tablets

It all started with wooden tablets. Coated with smooth beeswax, these wooden boards were often used to record everyday texts that were not important enough to be put on the expensive papyrus rolls. Letters were scratched in the wax with a metal stylus and could be easily erased using the other, flat end of the stylus. Due to this efficient reusability, wax tablets were especially popular in schools.

A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek
A set of two wax tablets once bound together containing the homework book of a child in Greek: Add MS 34186 (Egypt, 2nd century CE)

In this little homework-book from about 2000 years ago, which was one of our favourite objects of the Writing exhibition, the teacher wrote literacy and numeracy homework on two tablets. They would have been carried home by the children and back to school to present the completed homework to the teacher. The two wooden tablets were bound together with string, producing a booklet with pages which was often called a codex after the Latin word caudex (wood-block). This little booklet not only preserves the Greek homework of a pupil from 2000 years ago, but also foreshadows a future format that would swiftly take over from scrolls.

5.) A composite: booklets of papyri

It was probably the arrival of Christianity that prompted the next major change in the history of the book. With its strong emphasis on textual interpretation, Christianity required books that allowed for easy and accurate navigation of the texts of the Old and New Testaments.

A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John
A leaf from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel of John: Papyrus 2484 (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century) 

Although the earliest copies of the Old and New Testament were handed down in the traditional format of a papyrus scroll, from the early 2nd century a new composite format was developed to hold the books of the scriptures: a little booklet of bound papyrus leaves. These papyrus books, called codices after the bound wax tablets, were usually small and contained only selected portions of the Old or New Testament either for personal or liturgical use, and not the entire Bible as we know it from our printed copies.

Bringing all the books of the Old and New Testament together as one authoritative new book, called the Bible (Biblia) containing all the books (ta biblia in Greek) of the Scriptures, was way beyond the capacities of a simple papyrus booklet. A new writing support was needed to accommodate all these texts in one bound volume – and that was animal skin.

6.) Parchment

Legend has it that when Egypt placed an embargo on its export of papyrus in 197BC, the librarians of the city of Pergamon (in present day Turkey) started to use animal skin to copy their books, which they called pergamen (i.e. parchment) after their own city. It was this more expensive but more durable material that was to replace the fragile papyrus leaves of the early booklets to create the direct predecessor of the books on our shelves.

Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a fragment from a historical work, written in Roman literary cursive
Fragment of a parchment manuscript, containing a historical work written in Roman literary cursive: Papyrus 745 (Italy, 1st century AD)

7.) The book

The iconic manifestation of this long process is one of the world’s earliest Bibles, Codex Sinaiticus. Copied possibly in Palestine in the early 4th century, it is the earliest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament and the oldest and best witness for some of the books of the Greek version of the Old Testament. The Codex originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. Its name (‘the book from Sinai’) refers to the monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai where it was preserved until the middle of the 19th century. Beside its utmost importance for the textual history of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus is a milestone in the history of the book.

Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament
Codex Sinaiticus, one of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts and the oldest surviving manuscript to contain the complete New Testament: Add MS 43725 (Palestine, early 4th century)

Codex Sinaiticus is an iconic monument in the history of the book, marking the shift to the format of book that has predominated for the last 1700 years. The manuscript still shows its roots in the culture of papyrus scrolls. For example, the eight parallel columns of text on each double-page opening correspond to the portion of text that was opened for reading on a papyrus scroll. However, when complete, Codex Sinaiticus probably had at least 730 parchment leaves, carefully prepared from the skins of about 365 sheep. With hundreds of leaves, once bound between two heavy wooden covers, Codex Sinaiticus was revolutionary. It shows all the major benefits of a codex book over the ancient format of the scroll. The clear pages of the volume allow for easy navigation of both the Old and New Testament. The texts are neatly prepared and numbered. It may have even contained a detailed index, called canon in Greek, to the gospels.

In addition to the New Testament and substantial parts of the Old Testament now held in the British Library, parts of Codex Sinaiticus are also held in Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. The manuscript is now fully digitised and transcribed, and available at an interpretative website produced as a collaboration between the four institutions.

Codex Sinaiticus represents the close of the era of papyrus rolls and the opening of a whole new chapter in human history which, after the invention of paper and printing, eventually takes us to the bound book you may have next to you right now. Opening it in your bed tonight, remember the long history of your familiar companion, going back through handwritten parchment codices, papyrus booklets, wax tablets and stone inscriptions. This is a history of which you are now a part.

To discover more about the history of the book and the British Library's amazing ancient collections, explore our Greek manuscripts and A history of writing webspaces.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 April 2020

Designing the Arnstein Bible

Following our blogpost on the Worms Bible earlier this month, today I focus on another remarkable German Romanesque Bible in the Library’s collection: the Arnstein Bible. Like the Worms Bible, it is enormous (540 x 355 mm), and now in two volumes. The first volume includes Genesis to Malachi, and the second Job to Revelation, with large illuminated and decorated initials at the beginning of the biblical books. The manuscript is fully digitised, and available to view online (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799).

Decorated initial of Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v

The Bible was made at the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein, on the Lahn river about 30 kilometres east of Coblenz, which was founded in 1139 by the last count of Arnstein, Ludwig III (d. 1185), who became a lay brother there.

In date, the Arnstein Bible was produced around twenty-five years after the Worms Bible. Originally, the manuscript included historical annals recording important events related to the Abbey (now Darmstadt, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 4128), that reveal an approximate date for it of 1172. We also know the name of the man who wrote it, identified in the entry for that year as a brother called Lunandus.

Detail of decorated initial showing Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v (detail)

Lunandus had a formidable task to undertake in planning out the design and layout of this enormous book. The text is written out in 39 lines to a page, with generous margins. Most of the biblical books and introductory material are presented in two columns of 130 mm in width.

An indication that this Bible is a great monastic book is the inclusion of not one, but rather three translations of the book of Psalms, arranged in three parallel columns, each of 80 mm width. This allowed the reader to study the variant Psalm texts across the page (see this previous blog post for more on St Jerome’s (d. 420) three translations of the Psalms in this Bible).

Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101
Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101, Harley MS 2799, f. 40r

For Lunandus, planning the layout for the transition from two to three columns and back again presented particular challenges. The three comparable versions of the Psalms proper finish about three-quarters of the way down the page (f. 57r). The next texts that had to be included only required one version; however the rest of the page was still ruled for three columns. Lunandus had to signal that the reader must switch from comparing the variant Psalm translations across the page to reading one column and then going to the next, sequentially.

He did this by identifying the following texts with a series of rubrics, or headings in red ink (the term rubric is derived from the Latin 'rubrica', the name of the red ochre pigment used to make the colour red). Lunandus presented the short so-called Psalm 151 in the first column and started the prologue to the next biblical book in the second and third columns.

The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, written in three columns
The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r

The rubric in the first column summarises the contents of Psalm 151: 'Hic p[salmu]s pr[opr]ie scriptus est David [et] extra numerum cum pugnaret cum gloria et in hebraicis codicibus non habetur' (This Psalm was written by David himself and is outside the number [of the Psalms] and is not contained in Hebrew bibles. It is about the time when David fought with glory.) The short text in seven verses follows below this heading.

The adjoining rubric, spread out over columns two and three, explains that the Psalms have ended, 'explicit libor psalmorum' (here ends the book of Psalms), and that the prologue to Proverbs is about to begin (incipit). The start of this prologue begins in the middle column. Here Lunandus left room for an enlarged initial letter on eight lines, the letter ‘C’ of the first word ‘Chromatio’, the name of the original addressee. The rest of the word is written in individual letters vertically to the right of the first letter. The initial itself is embellished with stylized acanthus leaf decoration punctuated with characteristically Germanic gold bands ornamented by small round dots that are cinched around the foliate form.

Deatil of the decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs
The decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r (detail)

This sophisticated presentation of text and image represents a stunning achievement in scholarship and design. Like other great or giant Romanesque Bibles, the Arnstein Bible represents a testament to the commitment of its makers to the elegant presentation of the Word of God.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Cornell, 1982), pp. 26, 230, 253 no. 8, pls 157, 162.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 'The Hand of God and the Hand of the Scribe: Craft and Collaboration at Arnstein', in Die Bibliothek des Mittelalters als dynamischer Prozess, ed. by Michael Embach, Claudine Moulin and Andrea Rapp, Trierer Beiträge zu den Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, 3 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2012), pp. 53-78 (p. 62, fig. 22, colour plate 17).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson and the British Library, 2016), no. 23.

23 April 2020

St George and the Garter

On St George’s Day (23 April) 1349, at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, the first annual assembly was held by the Order of the Garter, England’s oldest Order of Chivalry. Dedicated to George, the Order was founded by King Edward III (1312–1377) who wanted to revive the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian Legend. Edward had appointed himself as the Order’s Sovereign, his son Edward the Black Prince (1330–1376) as Royal Knight, and 24 of his most loyal men as Knights Companions. He had chosen the French maxim ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it’) as the Order’s motto, and a blue garter as its emblem, perhaps alluding to the girdle with which St George, according to medieval legend, had tamed a dragon before slaying it.

Two groups of men and women in blue mantles with blue garters on them, standing to the left and right of an altar on which St George on horseback impales a dragon with his lance. Behind him stands a woman with a pink gown and green headwear, and holding a white lamb on a leash, who represents the princess who, according to medieval legend, had been selected through a lottery to offer herself as food to the dragon.

An assembly of Knights and Ladies of the Garter (women were accepted soon after the Order’s foundation), before an altar of St George (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI (The Talbot Shrewsbury Book), f. 439r

The rituals and symbols of the Order of the Garter are described and depicted in many richly decorated medieval and early modern manuscripts. The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp (Cotton MS Julius E IV/3), for example, features an early depiction of the Order’s ceremony for installing new Knights. This ceremony requires the Sovereign, aided by senior Knights, to place the garter — a dark blue velvet riband with a gold buckle and edges — around the newly-elected Knight’s lower left leg, just below the knee. In this manuscript, King Henry IV can be seen giving the garter to Richard Beauchamp (1382–1439), 13th Earl of Warwick as a reward for successfully defeating the Welsh at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1405. (You can read more about the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp in this blogpost.)

A pen drawing showing Richard Beauchamp in full armour receiving the garter around his left leg from a Knight who kneels below him. To his left stands King Henry IV. They are surrounded by other Knights of the Garter

Richard Beauchamp receives the garter from King Henry IV (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Julius E IV/3 (The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp), f. 4v

Many manuscripts describe the history of the Order of the Garter (Harley MS 5415) or explain its statutes and ordinances about membership, functions, qualifications, costumes and ceremonies (Cotton MS Nero D II, ff 252r–265v, Harley MS 235, Harley MS 278, Lansdowne MS 783, Lansdowne MS 1207). These books indicate that the Knights had few obligations, apart from attending the annual assembly, participating in religious services, and wearing the garter whenever appearing in public. Their privileges were both honorific and spiritual: members could hang their swords, helmets, banners, stall-plates with their names, and heraldic devices at St George’s Chapel at Windsor. After death, the remaining Knights would perform large numbers of masses (100 for Knights and 1000 for the Sovereign) for the benefit of their souls.

An opening at the beginning of a manuscript containing the statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter, with, on the left page, a full-page drawing of the royal arms of the Order: an escutcheon encircled by the blue garter and with a royal crown in gold and red on top. The escutcheon has two halves: in the left half is the red cross of St George on a silver ground, and in the right half are the quartered royal arms of Queen Elizabeth I, featuring two quarters in blue with three fleurs-de-lis in gold, and two quarters in red with three lions in gold. On the right page, we see the opening of the statutes and ordinances, marked by a gold initial ‘T’, and written in a Gothic script with black ink

The Statutes and Ordinances of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1572): Lansdowne MS 1207, ff. 1v–2r

One important category of manuscripts relating to the Order of the Garter contains their members' coats of arms. Around 1415, the Order created its own officer of arms, known as the Garter King of Arms. In the 1430s, William Bruges (c. 1375–1450), the first to hold that office, created the Order’s first extant armorial, now known as the Bruges Garter Book (Stowe MS 594). The manuscript contains illustrations of the King and the 25 Founder Knights, all wearing heraldic tabards and Garter mantles and displaying their coats of arms. William Bruges himself, as the Garter King of Arms, is shown kneeling before St George.

St George in full armour and with a pink mantle, holding a jousting shield with a red cross on a white ground, and a lance and a sword with which he holds a green dragon down at this feet. To his right is the Garter King of Arms who is wearing a crown and a heraldic tabard with the coat of arms of Henry V (the same as those of Queen Elizabeth I), and is kneeling in prayer

William Bruges wearing a heraldic tabard that displays the arms of King Henry V, kneeling in prayer before St George (England, 1430s): Stowe MS 594, f. 5v

Other heraldic manuscripts from the Order contain collections of the arms of its then members. Their arms are easy to recognize since members had the right to encircle the shields (escutcheons) of their coats of arms with the blue garter, the Order’s emblem.

A list of the Knights of the Garter in the first year of the reign of King Henry V with in the page’s margins the coats of arms of its 26 members, including those of the King. Two have been left unfinished.

Armorial of the Order of the Garter (? London, 1588): Harley MS 1864, f. 2v

An important literary manuscript that is associated with the Order of the Garter’s early history is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps the most famous medieval English romance. This Middle English poem sees Gawain, one of King Arthur's most valiant knights, undertake a quest during which he acquires a magical green girdle. Upon his return to Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table agree to wear a green sash in memory of Gawain’s quest, just like the Knights of the Garter, who would wear their garters on ceremonial occasions. What is more, an early owner of the unique copy of the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X) inscribed a motto below the text that is almost identical to that of the Order: ‘hony soit q[ui] mal penc’. This raises interesting questions about the poem's underlying meaning, and whether it comments on the ideals and practices of the Order.

Above, we can see the inscription of the Order of the Garter’s motto in brown ink in the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Below this image is full-page miniature from the same manuscript, showing Gawain in full armour, kneeling before King Arthur, wearing golden crown and a blue mantle, and Queen Guinevere, wearing a golden crown and a green dress.

The Order of the Garter’s motto (above) and a full-page miniature of Sir Gawain returning to the court of King Arthur after completing his quest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (North-West Midlands, c. 1400): Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 128v and f. 130r

The Order of the Garter was celebrated in other poetic manuscripts. For example, we have a poem by William Tesshe of York, uniquely surviving in Harley MS 3437, in which he praises the Order’s Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, and honours each of its Knights separately. The manuscript is decorated with their coats of arms in colours and gold.

Another unique poem, extant in Harley MS 6103, is dedicated to George Villiers (1592–1628), who was Marquess of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral of England when he was admitted to the Order in 1620. The poem styles him as St George, his namesake, and claims that he too will curb ‘The conquerd dragon which hee [St George] leadeth tame’. An accompanying full-page illustration adorns Villiers with attributes that are rife with Garter imagery. It displays him as a knight wearing full armour, riding a horse with the arms of the Order on its caparison, holding a lance with a banner that displays St George slaying the dragon in one hand, and a dragon on a leash in the other. The dragon is apparently tamed by the garter that is hanging from its neck, suggesting an analogy between the Order’s emblem and the girdle with which St George subjugated his dragon.

This illustration shows George Villiers in full armour and riding a horse with a red caparison (horse cape) which displays the Order of the Garter’s coat of arms (the red cross of St George encircled by the blue garter). In his right hand, he is holding a lance with a yellow banner that features an image of St George slaying the dragon. In his left hand, he is holding a blue leash that goes around the neck of a small winged red dragon below him. From the dragon’s neck, and attached to the leash, hangs the blue garter with, what appears to be, a sketch of St George slaying the dragon inside it.

George Villiers with the symbols of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1620): Harley MS 6103, f. 3r

Music was central to the Order of the Garter’s religious celebrations at Windsor. The canons who performed its liturgical music produced original music compositions, and they were perhaps responsible for a creative and artistic rendering of a 16th-century melody for the Order’s motto (‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’) that has been inserted on a paper sheet into Royal MS 8 G VII. The music has been written on two 5-line staves that are shaped like the garter and a lance with which a knight charges a dragon. The composition is dedicated to the Earl of Arundel, probably Henry Fitzalan (1512–1580), the 12th Earl, who was admitted to the Order in 1544.

A 5-line music staff with neumes shaped in the form of the garter with inside it a knight charging a dragon with a lance that is made of another 5-line music staff with neumes, forming a melody for singing the Order’s motto in canon.

A canon for the Order of the Garter’s motto written on music staves that are shaped like the garter and a knight’s lance (England, 16th century): Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 1v

The Order of the Garter is nearly 700 years old. The rituals and symbols that its members practise today are preserved in manuscripts of great artistic and cultural value, many of which themselves date back centuries.


Clarck Drieshen

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20 April 2020

The Holy Helpers

Medieval men and women often sought help from saints — holy figures who were considered to be miracle workers. Thousands of saints were venerated across Europe, and some of the most popular were known as the Holy Helpers. Written accounts of their lives typically told that, just before they died, they had asked God to grant their future worshippers specific forms of protection or rewards, and that a voice from Heaven or an angel had confirmed their requests. Their legends suggested that venerating them was a sure-fire method to obtain divine aid.

A cult of ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’ was founded in the 14th century. It originated in the Rhineland (western Germany), before spreading to other European regions. The group’s number and members varied regionally but often included early Christians who had been martyred during Roman persecutions, such as Saints Christopher, Dorothy, Blaise, Apollonia, and Cyricus and Julitta.

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary in a blue robe (centre), holding the Christ Child, and with a female patron in a black robe and displaying her coat of arms kneeling at her feet. The group features many familiar saints who can be easily recognised from their attributes, such as St George (first row, second from the left, in grey armour and with a green dragon at his feet), St Barbara (first row, third from the left, holding a golden chalice), St Katherine of Alexandria (first row, third from the right, with a sword in her hand and standing on top of a broken torture wheel), and St Margaret of Antioch (first row, second from the right, holding a a staff and standing on or emerging from a green dragon).

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 190v

Groups of Holy Helpers were also venerated in England. In Harley MS 2255 (ff. 70r-71v), the poet John Lydgate (c. 1370–1449/50) praised ten of them for securing a special boon for their followers:

‘God granted you while that you were here

to each of you remarkable privileges:

whoever prays to you wholeheartedly and sincerely,

to hear all their requests graciously

[and] remedy worldly dangers and misfortunes

Because of this remember in your special prayers

all those who have you devoutly in memory’

(‘God grauntyd you whil that ye wer heere

to ech of you synguler prerogatives

who prayeth to you of hool herte and enteere

Alle ther requestys graciously to heere

Geyn worldly tempestis and troublys transitorye

For which rembemrith in your special prayeere

On alle that have you devoutly in memorye’ (f. 71r))

Three stanzas written in brown ink and opening with gold initials against blue and purple grounds with foliate penwork decoration. They contain John Lygate’s Middle English prayers to St Denis, St George, and St Christopher whose names are written in red ink in the right margin.

John Lydgate, Prayers to Ten Saints (Bury St Edmunds, c. 1460–c. 1470): Harley MS 2255, f. 70r

Late medieval English religious manuscripts often detailed how and what forms of protection could be obtained from individual Holy Helpers. An example of this is the prayer to St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, added to the 13th-century Mostyn-Psalter Hours (Add MS 89250). The prayer states that ‘wherever Christopher is venerated, snow, famine or plague, and evil death will not prevail there’ (‘ubi Christoforus memoratur / Vix fames aut pestis mala mors ibi non dominatur’ (f. 159v)). The 14th-century Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton MS 2781) specifies that one needed to look at an image of St Christopher so as not to faint on that day:

‘Whoever shall behold the image of St Christopher shall not faint on that day’

(‘Christofori sanctam speciem quicumque tuetur / illo nempe die nullo languore tenetur’ (f. 37r))

St Christopher in a pink robe and holding a staff in his hand while standing in a river with fish in it, carrying the Christ Child, clad in a red robe, on his shoulders.

St Christopher carrying the Christ Child in the Neville of Hornby Hours (London, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Egerton MS 2781, f. 36v

St Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, was believed to have secured protection for the homes of her followers. Those who wanted to gain her protection, according to a Latin poem added to a Middle English rendering of her life in Arundel MS 168, had either to write her name in or to place an image of her in their houses:

‘In whatever house the name or image of the excellent virgin Dorothy will be: no dead [or premature or stillborn] child will be born there, nor will the house experience fire, thievery or destruction, nor can anyone in there die from an evil death and the dying shall die with heavenly bread’

(‘In quacumque domo nomen fuit vel ymago / Virginis eximie dorothee virginis alme / Nullus abortivus infans nascetur in illa / Nec domus nec ignis furtique pericula sentit / Nec quisquam poterit ibi mala morte perire / Celestique pane moriens quin moriatur’ (f. 6v))

St Dorothy, kneeling in prayer and directing her gaze at an angel descending from heaven (upper right corner), wearing a golden crown, and a red and gold dress partially covered by a blue mantle. To her left stands a Roman torturer who is drawing his sword in order to execute her. To her right stands a boy carrying a basket with red flowers and fruits.

St Dorothy petitioning God for protection for her followers (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 117v

The protection of the Holy Helpers could also be invoked in medical contexts. St Blaise, according to the South English Legendary, had asked God that whoever venerated him and requested his help would be protected against obstructions in the throat. This explains why medical practitioners such as Thomas Fayreford (Harley MS 2558) added prayers for the saint to their recipes for throat ailments:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, true god, our father, through the virtue of the name and the prayer of St Blaise, your servant, deign to liberate your worthy male or female servant of the infirmity of the gullet, of the throat, of the uvula and of their other limbs, who lives and reigns, God throughout all ages. Amen. For this reason it is recited and say three Paternosters and Aves.’

(‘Dominus ihesus christus verus deus noster per virtutem nominis tui oracionem sancti blasii servi tui liberare digneris famulum tuum vel fa[mulam] tuam de infirmitate gule gutteris uvule et aliorum membrorum suorum qui vivis et regnas deus per omnia saecula · saeculorum · Amen [igi]tur dicatur et iij pater noster et Ave maria’ (f. 87r))

  A prayer to St Blaise written in brown ink in the lower margin of a page of Thomas Fayreford’s medical manuscript.

Thomas Fayreford’s prayer to St Blaise (South-West England, 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 2558, f. 87r

St Apollonia can also often be found in medical manuscripts. It was believed that, while her own teeth were being smashed by her persecutors, she requested God to give her followers relief from toothache. Her protection is invoked in a spell against toothache (‘charme for þe tothache’) in Harley MS 1600:

‘St Apollonia endured a grave martyrdom for the Lord by a tyrant who shattered her teeth with iron hammers and in this torment she prayed to the Lord, that whosoever will wear her name on him will have no toothache’

(‘Sancta Appollonia pro domino grave sustinuit martirium tyranni eius dentes cum malleis ferreis fregerunt et in hoc tormento oravit ad dominum ut quicumque nomen eius portaverit secum dolorem non habuerit in dentibus’ (f. 39r))

A charm for toothache that invokes St Apollonia with a title in Middle English, written in red ink, and text in Latin, written in brown ink.

A charm for toothache invoking St Apollonia (England, 15th century): Harley MS 1600, f. 39r

St Jullita and St Cyricus, a mother and son who had been martyred together, were believed to offer protection for women in labour. Because of this, they were invoked on amulet rolls that pregnant women used as birthing girdles. Harley Ch 43 A 14 and Harley Roll T 11 both explain that the two saints had asked God to protect pregnant women who carried amulets of the Holy Cross on their bodies while giving birth:

‘þe childe schall have cristendom [be baptized] and þe moder schall have purificacion [be blessed] ffor Seynt Cerice and Seynt Julitt his moder desirid þise graciouse gyftis [gifts] of god which he grauntid un to þem’ (Harley Ch 43 A 14, f. 1br)

A green Tau cross on a red ground flanked on the right by a Middle English text in brown ink that explains that it is an amulet that protects pregnant women. The illustration and text are badly damaged, presumably from having been used as a birthing girdle.

A birthing girdle invoking St Cyricus and St Julitta (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r

The requests for protection that the Holy Helpers were believed to have made to God for their followers formed the foundation for their joint cult. In England, it flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries when prayers dedicated to them identified more than 25 saints as Holy Helpers. This suggests that, whatever the effect of the prayers, spells and amulets that invoked them, their promises were important sources of hope, comfort and solace for those in need.


Clarck Drieshen

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17 April 2020

Henry VIII: the possessions of a Tudor monarch

King Henry VIII of England (1509–1547) was an extraordinary collector of beautiful and expensive things. Portraits of this Tudor monarch attest to the richness of his wardrobe and possessions. Cloth of gold and crimson velvet, jewelled fabrics, feathered caps, embroidery and fur all feature prominently in these illustrations. We can see evidence of this in a tiny girdle book (Stowe MS 956) that is thought to have been owned by Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn (d. 1536), containing an English translation of the Book of Psalms.

A small portrait of Henry VIII, from a 16th-century girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn

King Henry VIII’s portrait from a girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Surviving manuscripts from the height of the Tudor period give an insight into the enormous scale and variety of Henry’s possessions. In September 1547, 6 months after the King’s death, commissioners were appointed to compile an inventory of all his moveable goods and the contents of his 55 palaces. The task was so monumental and the administrators were so meticulous that it took them 18 months to complete.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing the opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods

The opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods, compiled after his death in 1547: Harley MS 1419/1, f. 4r

The finished inventory records thousands of objects that present a detailed picture of the splendour and opulence at the heart of the Tudor court. It consists of two parts. The first (now Society of Antiquaries MS 120 A and B) includes lists of money, jewels, books and plate, the munitions in the King’s forts and the King’s ships, as well as the contents of his armouries and stables. The second (now bound in two volumes as British Library Harley MS 1419/1 and Harley MS 1419/2) details the contents of each of the King’s palaces and the various specialist wardrobes in his possession, as well as those of his children and successors, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. This second part of the inventory has been recently digitised and is now available to view in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

A tapestry of the story of Abraham

A tapestry of the story of Abraham from Henry VIII's Great Bedchamber at Hampton Court Palace, now housed in the Royal Collection

The inventory records some extraordinary items that belonged to the royal household. These include:

  • One of the largest collections of tapestries and wall hangings ever recorded, comprising over 2000 items, made from silver, gold, silk and wool.
  • Around 800 carpets, over 200 of which were housed at Hampton Court alone.
  • A stockpile of textiles, including expensive silk cloth of gold and linen, embroidered damask, satin and taffeta, as well as velvet and sarsenet. Their combined value amounted to well over £50,000.
  • A variety of animal furs, from squirrel and lynx to sable and mink, and even leopard, is mentioned in the inventory. These were principally used to line and decorate gowns and robes for members of the king’s household.
  • Collections of brightly coloured feathers to adorn hats and bonnets.
  • Theatrical props and costumes for performances at court, belonging to the Master of the Revels.
  • Huge quantities of jewellery.
  • Numerous items of furniture: chairs, four-poster beds, footstools and dining tables.
  • Musical instruments: cornets, flutes, a harpsichord, portative organs (small handheld pipe organs), viols, virginals, a taberde and bagpipes, including one made of purple velvet and four fashioned out of ivory. Many of these instruments were additionally embellished with gold and fabric, or painted.

A miniature in an illuminated manuscript showing a group of 3 musicians playing their instruments

A miniature of musicians with a pipe and tabor, trumpet, harp and dulcimer, in the Henry VIII Psalter (London, c. 1540–1541): Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 98v

As part of their work, the commissioners of the 1547 inventory also provided lists of the books and manuscripts that Henry housed in his palaces. Many of Henry’s books were transferred to the Old Royal Library after his death, and subsequently became part of the British Library’s collections when they were presented to the nation by King George II (1727–1760) in 1757. Excitingly, it is possible to identify several of the books mentioned in the inventory from the descriptions provided.

The crimson velvet binding of a manuscript, which belonged to Henry VIII

A manuscript with a crimson velvet binding, recorded in the 1547 inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV

One item, for example, is recorded in the inventory as:

a description of the holy lande and a boke covered with vellat enbrawdred with the kings armes declaring the same, in a case of blacke leather with his graces Armes.

The text referred to here is in fact a French work entitled ‘Tresample description de toute la Terre Saincte’, written by a man who identifies himself as Martin de Brion of Paris. The manuscript is now housed in the British Library (as Royal MS 20 A IV), along with its beautiful crimson velvet binding, embroidered with the arms of England and France with fleur-de-lis, roses and crowns, and the letters H. H. on either side.

An illuminated page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing a dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, written in gold ink on a red background.

A dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, from a 16th-century manuscript once part of the king’s possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV, f. 2r

In addition to the description of the Holy Land, the book also includes a dedicatory letter and poem addressed to Henry, which begins:

Au tres illustre Prince Henry huyctiesme de ce nom Roy d’Angleterre et de France, seigneur d’Hybernie, & defenseur de lay foy, Martin de Brion Parisien donne salut immortel.

'To the most illustrious Prince Henry eighth of this name, King of England and France, lord of Ireland, and defender of the faith, Martin de Brion of Paris sends immortal greetings.'

A chemise binding for a 16th-century manuscript, made of burgundy velvet, with five painted enamel badges pinned its covers and a small tassel attached to its top left-hand corner.

The original chemise binding of a manuscript once belonging to Henry VIII: Harley MS 1498, upper cover

Another fascinating manuscript that was in Henry’s possession and still survives was originally made for his father, Henry VII (1485–1509). It is listed in the inventory as 'Item a booke of Kynge Henry the viith his foundacion of his chappell at Westminster'. The book was apparently stored in the little study next to the king’s old bedchamber in the palace there. The small volume (Harley MS 1498) has an original chemise binding, made of burgundy velvet and pinkish gold damask, with five painted enamel badges pinned to its upper and lower covers. A small tassel is affixed to the top left-hand corner, made from gold and burgundy thread.

A detail from a 16th-century manuscript, showing an enlarged decorated initial with a representation of Henry VII bestowing a manuscript a group of kneeling monks.

Henry VII bestows the manuscript to a group of kneeling monks from Westminster Abbey: Harley MS 1498, f. 1r (detail)

The manuscript preserves a series of four agreements (indentures) made on 16 July 1504 between Henry VII and the abbot and monks of Westminster Abbey, concerning the planned construction of the King’s new burial chapel. This copy seems to have originally belonged to the abbey, but probably became part of Henry VIII’s personal library after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The volume opens with an enlarged decorated initial, containing a representation of a crowned and enthroned Henry VII bestowing the manuscript to a group of monks kneeling before him. If you look closely, you can see that the book in Henry’s outstretched hand shows the same five enamel badges and the burgundy and gold tassel that remain part of the manuscript’s binding to this day.

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall made in 1544

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall in 1544 by the Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde

For more insights into life at the Tudor court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, we recommend this blogpost. You can read more about the libraries of King Henry VIII in James Carley, The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives (London: The British Library, 2004). The inventory itself has been edited by David Starkey, The Inventory of Henry VIII. Society of Antiquaries MS 129 and British Library MS Harley 1419: The Transcript (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1998).

We hope you enjoy searching the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods online, and that you can spot more treasures recorded in its pages.


Calum Cockburn

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13 April 2020

Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre

As this year’s Easter egg hunt is over, join us in a hunt through the pages of British Library manuscripts for some seasonal rabbits. Searching in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts yielded an amazing 80 images – they are everywhere! We found rabbits in the margins of prayer books and law books, in the borders of romances and chronicles, and even playing a supporting role in saints’ lives. Here are some of our favourites: from the cute and cuddly, to the dangerously criminal and the wonderfully weird.

Natural beauty

Each page of the Cocharelli Codex is decorated with features of the natural world, such as foliage, flowers, insects, birds, animals and seashells. The glorious meadow on this page includes a caterpillar, a dragonfly and two life-like hares.

 Detail from the ‘Cocharelli codex’, showing insects and two hares in the margin
Detail of insects and two hares from the Cocharelli codex, Italy, N. W. (Genoa); c. 1330 - c. 1340, Add MS 28841, f. 6v

Beasts of the earth

Medieval bestiaries are works containing images of animals with descriptions their attributes. The rabbit is described as ‘a wild and lithe beast’. In this image, Adam is naming a group of animals, including the rabbit, showing that man was considered lord over beasts.

Miniature from the Rochester Bestiary showing Adam naming the animals
Adam naming the animals in the Rochester Bestiary, England, S. E. (possibly Rochester); 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 34v

Useful to humans

The British Library has a number of highly decorated books containing scenes from rural life in the Middle Ages. Such scenes often contain images of rabbits, showing how important these creatures were in the rural economy: they were farmed for their fur and meat and hunted with hounds or ferrets.

The Taymouth Hours contains a series of images of a lady hunting rabbits; here she sends a hound or ferret into a warren to flush out the rabbits inside.

A woman catching rabbits in the Taymouth Hours
A woman catching rabbits in the Taymouth Hours, England, S. E., c. 1260, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 70v

A lordly rabbit

This Jewish liturgical book, the Barcelona Haggadah, contains the Haggadah, as well as liturgical poems and biblical readings for Passover. A colourful miniature shows the Israelites building a tower, supervised by an Egyptian master, at the beginning of the passage, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh’. Above is a rabbit seated on a throne, being served wine in a golden goblet by a dog.

The Barcelona Haggadah image of Israelites being forced to build a tower by the Egyptians, with a marginal image of a dog serving a rabbit
The Israelites in captivity, with a marginal scene of a dog serving a rabbit in the Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona), c. 1340, Add MS 14761, f. 30v

Rabbits in exile

Rabbits are not always in the margins – sometimes they take part in the action, as in this illuminated Book of Revelations. At the beginning, the Angel appears to St John while he is exiled on the Island of Patmos, with rabbits and a deer watching, in a lush, green landscape

the Angel appears to St John on the Island of Patmos, with rabbits and a deer watching
St John is visited by the angel on Patmos, Apocalypse with commentary, England, early 14th century, Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 1r

Rabbits and the saint

John Lydgate’s Life of St Edmund tells the story of his martyrdom and how his severed head was looked after by a friendly wolf until it was found in a thicket by monks with hunting dogs. This miniature shows St Edmund's head being found and reunited with his body, still pierced with arrows. The dogs have now begun hunting rabbits, who scamper to their burrows.

The discovery of St Edmund's body, with dogs and rabbits in the foreground
The discovery of St Edmund's body, Lives of St Edmund and St Fremund, England, Bury St Edmunds, c, 1435, Harley MS 2278, f. 67v

Rabbits in a romance

This manuscript of Roman de la Rose opens with a scene of the lover dreaming of the rose and the walled garden of delights. In the lower margin are rabbits being chased by hounds (again). But, not to worry - they will have their revenge – see below!

Page from the Romance of the Rose, with a picture of the lover asleep in the decorated initial and two dogs chasing three rabbits in the lower margin
The lover asleep in the decorated initial, and dogs chasing rabbits in the lower margin, Roman de la Rose, France, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Bunnies' revenge

The Smithfield Decretals is a large volume of canon law with narrative scenes added in the margins by a London artist. Rabbit hunting is depicted several times, but finally the rabbits take their revenge! There are several images of rabbits with bows and arrows shooting their persecutors, and a three-page series of a hound being brought to justice. First, he is bound, then he is tried by rabbits in an outdoor courtroom, and on the next pages, he is executed.

Rabbits bind and gag a dog in the Smithfield Decretals
Rabbits bind and gag a dog, the Smithfield Decretals, France, S. and London; 1275-1315, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 62v
Rabbits conduct a criminal trial of a dog in the Smithfield Decretals
Rabbits conduct a criminal trial of a dog, the Smithfield Decretals, France, S. and London; 1275-1315, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 63r

Trouble in a trumpet

We kept some of the weirdest rabbit images we found to last. This copy of the Holy Grail legend begins with a splendid illumination of Arthur’s court of Camelot and of Lancelot on his quest. Around the edges are scenes of jousting, a man shooting a butterfly, hybrid creatures, and in the upper margin, a naked man blowing a long trumpet out of which emerges…a rabbit!

Royal 14 E III f089r
A page from La Queste del Saint Graal, showing miniatures of Arthur and his court, and Lancelot on his quest, France, N., early 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r
Detail of a rabbit being blown out of a trumpet from the margins of La Queste del Saint Graal, France, N., early 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r

Jousting rabbit

This scene of a tournament with magnificent pavilions and finely-dressed knights is in a copy Froissart’s Chronicle. Look carefully, and in the decorative border are a rabbit and a snail jousting, both mounted on the shoulders of apes, in a parody of chivalric culture.

Harley MS 4379
A tournament, the 'Harley Froissart', Bruges, 1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v
Screenshot 2020-04-12 at 19.02.55
Detail of a rabbit and snail riding monkeys and jousting from the 'Harley Froissart', Bruges, 1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v

Sadly, we could not include all the great images we found, but why not try a search of your own? Go to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and search ‘Rabbit’ or ‘Rabbits’ in the 'image description' field. Be careful, though – despite their cute and cuddly appearance, some can be dangerous!

Chantry Westwell

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11 April 2020

Exultet rolls: celebrating the return of the light

The medieval churches of Southern Italy maintained a very special Easter tradition. They celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from a scroll made to be used once a year for this specific ritual. Known as Exultet rolls, these manuscripts combine words, music and pictures to create an enthralling multimedia experience centred on the joyful theme of light returning to the world.

The British Library's Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075-1080. This ancient abbey was founded by St Benedict, father of the Benedictine order, in around 529. The use of Exultet rolls was a tradition that went back to the early Beneventan practices of the area, while the style of the paintings in Add MS 30337 was influenced by near-contemporary Byzantine works.

The beginning of the Exultet, with a large golden letter 'E'
The beginning of the Exultet, with a large golden letter 'E': Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 2

Exultet rolls were made for performance. They were designed to be read by a deacon standing in the church's ambo (a raised platform used for readings). As he was reading, he would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the ambo, displaying the images to the congregation. For this reason, the pictures are generally arranged upside-down in relation to the text so they would appear the right way up to the viewers. The people would look up and see the beautiful images unfurling before their eyes like a moving picture show.

The use of the Exultet roll is illustrated in the roll itself:

Image of a deacon reading the Exultet roll in church, with the top of the roll draped over the ambo, beside the Paschal candle
Image of a deacon reading the Exultet roll in church, with the top of the roll draped over the ambo, beside the Paschal candle: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words 'Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum' (Rejoice now, angelic choir of the heavens), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil. The Exultet roll provides the text for the ritual along with neumes, a type of medieval musical notation, which guide the melody.

The roll begins with an image of Christ enthroned and adored by angels, with a banner that reads, 'Lumen xpisti lumen xpi lumen xpi' (light of Christ, light of Christ, light of Christ), emphasising the central message of the ritual—that the Resurrection of Christ at Easter is the return of light to the world.

Christ enthroned, adored by angels
Christ enthroned, adored by angels: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 1

The text celebrates the renewal of life at springtime, illustrated by a personification of Mother Earth (Tellus Mater). She is depicted in the illumination as a naked woman with her arms outspread in a loving gesture, surrounded by plants and nurturing a cow and a serpent at her breasts. Based on classical imagery, this represents the natural abundance and goodness of Earth.

Mother Earth (Tellus Mater)
Mother Earth (Tellus Mater): Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

Following Mother Earth is an image of Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia), where the juxtaposition of the two allegorical mothers suggests worldly and spiritual nurture. As the text announces, Mother Church is celebrating and adorned with brightness. She is shown richly dressed like an empress, holding up a church and surrounded by the faithful.

Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia)
Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia): Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 3

The text goes on to recall all the events that make the eve of Easter so gloriously bright, declaring: 'This is the night which purged the shadows of sin with a column of light' (Hec igitur nox est que peccatorum tenebras columne illuminatione purgauit).

As it explains, on the Paschal feast, God delivered the Israelites from captivity in Egypt through the parting the Red Sea. On the eve of Easter, Christ descended to the underworld and redeemed the righteous through the Harrowing of Hell, cancelling the sin of Adam and Eve. On this night, Christ's Resurrection took place. Each of these events is illustrated in the roll.

The crossing of the Red Sea
The crossing of the Red Sea: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 7

After this, the deacon asks God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle, then gives lengthy praise to the bees who produced its wax. The text announces that 'the bee surpasses all the other living things that are subject to man' (Apis ceteris que subiecta sunt homini animantibus antecellit).

Drawing on the Georgics of Virgil, the text describes how the bee emerges in the springtime and immediately gets to work, gathering flowers, building a hive, making honey, forming wax and caring for the young. In this way, the bees are a fitting symbol of Spring and of the community working together for the common good.

Bees gathering nectar and taking it to their hive, with a beekeeper harvesting wax
Bees gathering nectar and taking it to their hive, with a beekeeper harvesting wax: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

Bees are also praised for their chastity, which the text links to the Virgin Mary whose chaste motherhood made the events of Easter possible.

Virgin and Child, with two figures (probably angels) cut out from either side
Virgin and Child, with two figures (probably angels) cut out from either side: Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, Add MS 30337, membrane 11

The Exultet ends with a prayer for the end of the dark night and for the rise of the morning star that will never set. It asks God to grant peace and joy to the clergy, the pope, the bishop, all the congregation and the emperor.

In the church, we can imagine the deacon coming to the end of the prayer with the light of the newly lit Paschal candle glinting on the gold of the Exultet roll. The bright images descending from the ambo brought the themes of the text to life. For the people gathered in the church and sharing the experience, the roll reinforced the joyful messages of hope, renewal and brightness of the Easter celebration.

Happy Easter to all from BL Medieval!

Eleanor Jackson

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Translations are from Thomas Forrest Kelly, The exultet in southern Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

09 April 2020

Illuminating the Worms Bible

Some of the finest examples of medieval book art are Bibles. Medieval scribes and artists illustrated biblical manuscripts in order to adorn and elaborate the sacred text, as you can discover in our Biblical Illumination article on the Discovering Sacred Texts webspace. A particularly impressive example is the Worms Bible (Harley MS 2803). With pages measuring 540 x 355 mm, this is one of a number of giant multi-volume Bibles that were produced throughout Western Europe in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The Worms Bible includes a seventeenth-century inscription recording that it belonged to the Augustinian abbey of St Mary Magdalene in Frankenthal, about ten kilometres (six miles) south of Worms. Frankenthal was an important scriptorium, and this Bible may have been made at the Abbey. There is a very small inscription on the first folio before the text proper, right on the edge of the lower margin, recording the date of 1148 (anno MCXLVIII), which was probably when the work was either begun or completed.

St Jerome writing at a desk, with a tonsured monk holding up an inkwell to him
Prefatory letter at the beginning of the Worms Bible, with a miniature of St Jerome writing at a desk and a decorated initial 'F', Harley MS 2803, f. 1v
Screenshot 2020-04-08 at 15.57.46
Detail of St Jerome writing at a desk, with a tonsured monk holding up an inkwell to him, Harley MS 2803, f. 1v

Like most Vulgate Bibles, the two volumes of the Worms Bible include several letters by St Jerome arranged as prefatory material. The first text is St Jerome’s letter to bishop Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), in which St Jerome urged Paulinus to study the Scriptures diligently, to live in and meditate on them (inter haec vivere, ista meditari). It begins with a large illustration of St Jerome seated as a scribe writing (f. 1v). Here St Jerome holds a quill pen and a knife with which to make corrections. A small tonsured figure, perhaps the commissioning abbot, holds up an ink horn to St Jerome to supply him with ink for his task.

On the pages of his open book, we can see that St Jerome is writing the first words of the letter: ‘Frater ambrosi/us tua m[ih]i mu/nuscula’ (Brother Ambrosius [has delivered your] your little gifts to me). Immediately next to the scene is a large letter ‘F’(rater) that begins the text itself. The letter is embellished with bright stylized acanthus leaf decoration interwoven around the gold bars of the letter. Characteristically Germanic gold bands with small round dots are cinched around the foliate forms.

The creation of light above, and the Creation of Eve below, in the initial ‘I’(n), at the beginning Genesis
The creation of light above, and the Creation of Eve below, in the initial ‘I’(n), at the beginning Genesis, Harley MS 2803, f. 6v
Detail of the Creation of Eve
Detail of the Creation of Eve, Harley MS 2803, f. 6v

In the large initial beginning the book of Genesis a few pages later, tight scrolls join the foliate decoration, and the illustrations move into the initial ‘I’(n) itself (f. 6v). The second word of the text, ‘principio’ ([in] the beginning), is also displayed in the panel of decoration. Two scenes from Genesis are included: at the top of the letter, God orders ‘FIAT LUX’ (let there be light), while below, God creates Eve from Adam's side while the speech scroll contains his observation that ‘Non est bonu[m] homine[m] esse solum fa/cimus ei adiutoriu[m] simile sui’ (It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself, Genesis 2:18). Skin tones are shaded in green and pink, and the painting contains fine details, such as the incision on the sleeping Adam’s side from which Eve, who stands behind him, has just emerged.

Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, at the beginning of Job
Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, at the beginning of Job, Harley MS 2803, f. 288v
Detail of Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil
Detail of Job covered with sores, being poked by a devil, Harley MS 2803, f. 288v

These features of the stylized acanthus, clasps, colours, and modelling of tones are found in the other large initials that begin each biblical book. Most depict the book’s author, often writing or holding a scroll with a quotation from his text. For example, Job reclines in the initial letter of his book, covered with sores with a devil tormenting him (f. 288v). He laments: ‘pereat dies in qua nat[us] su[m] et nox in qu[a] dictu[m] e[st] c[on]cept[us] e[st] homo’ (Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said: A man child is conceived, Job 3:3).

The Worms Bible was exhibited in Mannheim in 2013, and was featured in blog about the exhibition at that time. You can view both volumes on the Digitised Manuscripts website, and discover more about the production of medieval manuscripts in our article, How to make a medieval manuscript. For more about this Bible, see Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), no. 21.

Kathleen Doyle

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