Medieval manuscripts blog

2 posts from August 2020

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

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01 August 2020

The maps of Matthew Paris

Matthew Paris (b. c. 1200, d. 1259) was a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in Hertfordshire who was renowned for his work as a chronicler, scribe, and artist. His entry in the St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII), produced a little over a century after his death, describes him as an ‘incomparabilis monographus et pictor peroptimus’ (a writer without equal and an excellent artist). Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

A portrait of Matthew Paris writing at a desk, from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book.
A portrait of Matthew Paris (Matheus Parisiensis), from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 50v detail)

In addition to his other accomplishments, Paris is also widely regarded as one of the greatest cartographers of his time. All of the British Library’s examples of his maps have now been digitised and can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Maps of Britain

Paris’ maps of Britain are significant in the history of medieval cartography as they represent some of the first attempts to depict the actual physical appearance of the country. Earlier maps more commonly represented the relationship between major regions or cities in schematic diagrams that provided little indication of distance or topography. Four of Paris’ maps of Britain survive, three housed at the British Library, and the fourth in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, showing Scotland, Wales, and much of Northern England.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, 1250-1259, St Albans (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 5v)

The first map appears in a manuscript containing copies of the Chronica maiora and Historia Anglorum written in Paris’ own hand (Royal MS 14 C VII). Though it is simpler than other surviving examples, the map still includes a number of significant geographical features, such as the River Thames, the Isles of Man and Wight, Snowdon in North Wales (with a drawing of the mountain), and the Orkneys off the coast of Scotland. Paris also features a route running across the country from the south coast all the way up to Durham. The major cities of Dover, London, and York (here known by its Latin name Eboracum) are accompanied by small drawings of castles or forts, with crenellated battlements.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, partly damaged in the Cotton Fire 1731.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, formerly part of the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (Cotton MS Julius D VII/1)

The second of Paris’ maps was originally drawn on a single parchment leaf that was then folded, cut, and inserted into another volume, known as the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (d. 1258). The map was damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731 and is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Julius D VII/1).

John of Wallingford was the infirmerer of St Albans Abbey and a contemporary and friend of Paris. His Collectanea is a miscellany that includes a huge variety of material: medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and historical texts, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, as well as a number of drawings by Paris himself. John added his own additions and annotations to the map of Britain in black ink, and he used the reverse of the leaf for the text of his Chronicle, which features a number of tables and diagrams.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, with the surrounding seas in turquoise, landmarks and place names in blue and red, and rivers in dark blue and red.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, from a collection of historical works, c. 1255-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1)

By far the most detailed of Matthew Paris’ surviving maps of Britain once belonged to a manuscript of Paris’ Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie (Brief Abridgement of the Chronicles of England), a summary of his Historia Anglorum that covers the period in English history from the end of the first millennium to around 1255. It is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1).

The map effectively provides a visual complement to Paris’ Historia. Over 250 named places appear – all of which are mentioned in the text itself – including over 80 cathedrals and monasteries, 41 castles, and at least 30 ports, as well as most of Britain’s major mountain ranges and rivers. Paris included depictions of both Hadrian’s Wall, captioned 'murus dividens anglos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once separating the English and the Picts), and the Antonine Wall, or 'murus dividens scotos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once dividing the Scots and the Picts).

You can explore all the map’s details in this wonderful interactive annotated copy designed by Dr John Wyatt Greenlee (Cornell University).

The Road Map of Britain

A page from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, showing a drawing of map, marked with four Roman roads running across Britain during the 13th century.
A road-map of Britain in the 13th century, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 187v detail).

An altogether different type of map is found in Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions), a collection of original literary treatises and historical documents he assembled to support his research. It is orientated with Occidens (West) at the top and Oriens (East) at the bottom, and instead of marking topographical features, it outlines four major military roads established during the Roman occupation of Britain, which were still in use during Matthew Paris’ lifetime: Fosse Way (running from Exeter to Lincoln), Ermine Street (London to York), Ickneild Way (Bury St Edmunds to Salisbury) and Watling Street (Dover to Chester).


An opening from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, featuring an itinerary map of the route between London and Naples.
An itinerary map, showing the route between London and Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, ff. 183v-184r)

Paris also created a number of expanded road maps known as itineraries, which detail the routes undertaken by travellers going on pilgrimage to Italy and the Holy Land. There are two housed at the British Library, the first also appearing in Paris’ Book of Additions. Drawn across a single opening in the manuscript, this itinerary outlines a potential route that could be taken between London and Naples. It features the various cities, ports, abbeys and monasteries, and other major sites that a pilgrim might expect to encounter on their journey. These are all connected by a series of lines drawn in red, with accompanying inscriptions that indicate how long it would take between each stop on the way. A particularly notable inclusion is a drawing of the hospital found at the top of Mount Cenis, the main Alpine pass that pilgrims would take to reach northern Italy.

A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing a drawing of a hospital at the top of Mount Cenis in the Alps.
The hospital marked at the top of Mount Cenis in Paris’ itinerary map from London to Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 184r detail).

The second itinerary depicts the route between London and Palestine. It is organised according to the same principles as the Nero map, but it is also far more complex and ambitious in its design, running across multiple leaves, with numerous detailed representations of the different sites featured on the pilgrimage route. Parchment flaps have also been stitched to some of the pages, to allow for additional drawings and provide alternative routes and information for travellers. The final section of the map is dominated by a large outline of the city of Acre – one of the only remaining Crusader strongholds in the region by Matthew Paris’ time – and other important sites in the Holy Land, such as Jerusalem (labelled ‘CIVITAS IERUSALEM’), Mount Sinai, and Bethlehem, which appears with its star shining in the sky above.

An opening from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre, with added parchment tabs.
The final section of an itinerary map of the route between London and the Holy Land, showing an outline of the city of Acre, as well as the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem (Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4v-5r)
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land.
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 4v detail).

We hope you enjoy exploring all the Matthew Paris maps as much as we have on our Digitised Manuscripts site!

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further Reading

Connolly, Daniel K., The Maps of Matthew Paris: Medieval Journeys Through Space, Time and Liturgy (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009).

Gilson, J.P., Four Maps of Great Britain Designed by Matthew Paris about A.D. 1250, Reproduced from Three Manuscripts in the British Museum and One at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (London: British Museum, 1928).

Harvey, P. D. A., 'Matthew Paris's maps of Britain', Thirteenth Century England, 4 (1992), 109–21.

Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London: The British Library, 2012).

Lewis, Suzanne, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica majora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).