Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from November 2020

29 November 2020

Sherborne Missal on the radio

Earlier this summer we digitised one of our greatest medieval treasures, the Sherborne Missal. Now this stunning illuminated manuscript is the subject of an episode of Moving Pictures radio programme, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 30th November 2020 at 4pm. You can also listen to the programme on the BBC website shortly after broadcast.

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

The richly decorated page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
The page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts for the Mass. In the Moving Pictures programme, we will be focusing on the page for Easter Sunday, the most important feast of the Christian year.

The feast of Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Christ, which is the subject of the page’s glorious initial letter:

Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Lower down the page, the patrons of the manuscript, Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng, and the craftsmen, John Whas and John Siferwas, pay their respects:

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

And scenes from the Old Testament provide theological parallels, or types, for the Resurrection:

Details of small scenes showing Jonah and the whale, and Sampson and the lion
 Jonah and the whale (left), and Sampson and the lion (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

But why are these hairy men fighting?

Detail of two hairy wodewoses fighting
Wodewose fight, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

And is that a bittern?

Detail of a bittern
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

To find out, tune in to Moving Pictures on BBC Radio 4, 30th November 2020 at 4pm, or listen on the BBC website afterwards!

Eleanor Jackson
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25 November 2020

900 years since the White Ship disaster

900 years ago today a tragedy took place which would dramatically alter the course of British history. On the evening of the 25th November 1120, a recently renovated ship of the finest construction set sail from the port of Barfleur on the Normandy coast. The White Ship, as it was named, had on board around 300 people, including an a-list of English nobles and the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, the 17-year-old William Adelin. But when the sun rose the next day, the fishermen of Barfleur found that only a few pieces of floating wreckage and one clinging survivor were all that remained of the White Ship.

A page from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of a grief-stricken King Henry I and the White Ship.
Illustration of King Henry I and the White Ship from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

What happened?

There are many accounts of the sinking of the White Ship, many of them written long after the event. One of the earliest and most detailed accounts is in William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Kings, the first surviving version of which is thought to have been written around 1126. William of Malmesbury paints a vivid picture of the young prince, showered with every privilege, the great hope for the kingdom’s future, who was tragically cut off before his prime.

A detail from a manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, showing an account of the White Ship disaster.
Account of the White Ship disaster by William of Malmesbury in Gesta regum Anglorum, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 98r

William of Malmesbury tells how Henry I and his followers were returning from a trip to France, during which William Adelin paid homage to King Louis VI of France and was made Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s ship departed first and reached England safely. But William Adelin, with ‘almost all the young nobility flocking around him’, led a second vessel, the White Ship. The young nobles, left to their own devices, started drinking and partying. The sailors also joined the fun, and after a few drinks too many they started boasting that they would overtake the king’s ship. When the White Ship launched after dark, the crew rowed as fast as they could, ‘swifter than an arrow’, straight into a rock offshore.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the White Ship.
Detail of the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

The White Ship instantly began to sink. In a bid to save the prince, the crew launched a small boat and set William Adelin inside it. He would have escaped had he not heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda, countess of Perche, still on board the sinking vessel. William ordered the oarsmen to go back for her, at which the small boat was overwhelmed by frightened people trying to clamber aboard and sank as well. The only survivor, a ‘rustic’, managed to cling to the floating mast all night.

A significant proportion of the English royal household and aristocracy died that night, and most of the bodies were never recovered. As William of Malmesbury famously summed it up, 'no ship ever brought England so much misery'.

Other accounts provide additional details. Most notably, Orderic Vitalis, writing around 20 years after the event, reported that priests had tried to bless the travellers before they set sail, but the rowdy company had laughed and driven them away. He adds that a number of people, including Stephen of Blois, were due to board the White Ship but decided against it when they saw the state of inebriation of them all. The sole survivor was identified by Orderic as a butcher from Rouen named Berold, who lived for a further 20 years. He also described how the captain of the ship, Thomas Fitzstephen, deliberately allowed himself to drown to avoid facing King Henry’s anger. Apparently, no one dared tell the king the news and, when he finally learned of it from a boy, his grief was immense.

A detail from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief at the death of his son.
Detail of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief, from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

Was it murder?

The sinking of the White Ship has been the focus of several conspiracy theories. The idea that the ship was deliberately sabotaged was suggested by the novelist Ken Follett in Pillars of the Earth (1989), and by the scholar Victoria Chandler in her article ‘The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?’ (1998).

None of the medieval sources imply that there was anything suspicious about the disaster. It’s difficult to imagine that such an act of mass murder could have been committed without raising any suspicions at the time, and any intrigue would almost certainly have been reported by the chroniclers. It’s also questionable how the ship could have been effectively sabotaged without the saboteurs themselves dying, and who stood to clearly gain from the disaster.

A medieval manuscript page with an illustration of Henry I and the White Ship
Henry I and the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

What were the consequences?

While the sinking of the White Ship was a personal tragedy for those involved, it was also a political disaster which caused a succession crisis and civil war in England, a period known as the Anarchy. The death of William Adelin on the White Ship left King Henry I without a legitimate male heir. Although he remarried soon afterwards, Henry was unable to have any more children. As a result, he declared his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. But on Henry’s death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized power. Matilda fought back, and period of long and devastating civil war ensued. Peace was only achieved in 1153, when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s son as his heir, the future King Henry II.

A detail from a genealogical roll, with roundels featuring portraits of King Henry I, Queen Matilda, their children William Adelin and Matilda, their nephew Stephen and Henry II.
Detail of the royal family tree from Henry I to Henry II, showing King Henry I, his wife Matilda of Scotland, their children William Adelin and Matilda, Henry’s nephew Stephen, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, from a Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 5 (image 'f. 5r')

Ultimately, the White Ship disaster is a reminder of how one tragic event could change the course of history. On the 900th anniversary of the event, spare a thought for the victims of the disaster, both the people who died on the ship and the many thousands who suffered in the civil war that followed.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 November 2020

The Polonsky project's two year anniversary

Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.

We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix rising from the flames: Harley MS 4751

We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:

(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).

The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.

So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.

If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.

You can read about the work of the Polonsky Foundation on their newly launched website, including about the England and France project.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

The Polonsky Foundation logo

21 November 2020

Camden's Annals PhD studentship

The First History of Elizabethan England: The Making of William Camden’s Annals

The British Library is pleased to invite applications for an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) PhD studentship, on the making of William Camden's Annals. The studentship will start in the academic year 2021/22 and is funded through the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. 

The successful applicant will be based at the University of Oxford, and will be supervised jointly by Dr Alexandra Gajda (Oxford), Dr Neil Younger (Open University) and Julian Harrison (The British Library). This doctoral project will be the first comprehensive study of the making of William Camden’s Annals, one of the most valuable sources on early modern Britain and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. For more details, please see the advert on the Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership website.

The opening page of Camden's Annals

The opening page of William Camden's Annals: Cotton MS Faustina F I, f. 3r

The thesis will focus initially on the drafts of Camden's Annals held in the Cotton collection here at the British Library. William Camden (d. 1623) had taught Robert Cotton (d. 1631) at Westminster School. They shared the same antiquarian interests, and Camden bequeathed his own manuscripts to Cotton, including the earliest full-scale history of Elizabeth I's reign, known as his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha (abbreviated commonly to Camden's Annals). The Cotton library is now recognised as one of the most important collections in Britain, and was entered on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register in 2018.

The award holder will carry out a thorough study of the manuscripts, with the intent of producing an assessment of the authorship of the Annals, looking at the drafting process and identifying the scribes involved and the corrections and additions made in other hands. The project will open up many avenues of research into the intellectual and political culture of the 16th century, including antiquarian and historical study, and the formation of the Cotton collection.

The student will be based at the British Library for a significant proportion of the studentship, where they will have a dedicated workspace, access to office equipment and services, and privileged staff-level access to the manuscripts collections, learning more about curatorial activities and the wider collection. The Library is actively involved in a range of collaborative doctoral research programmes across several disciplines and provides a broad range of professional development opportunities for doctoral students.

Applicants should have knowledge of Latin to A Level or above. Knowledge of early modern palaeography and history is desirable but not essential. Potential applicants are encouraged to contact Dr Alexandra Gajda with questions and for any guidance before submitting their application.

The deadline for applications is 12:00 (midday) on 8 January 2021. Please refer to the advert here for full details of how to apply.


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17 November 2020

Announcing the Acquisition of the Lucas Psalter

We announce today the British Library’s acquisition of the Lucas Psalter, which was made in Bruges for an English patron in the 1480s, at a time when such luxury Flemish books were sought after by English owners.

A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms at the bottom
A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms: Add MS 89428

The manuscript (now British Library, Add MS 89428) is a deluxe Psalter, including the book of the Psalms and other devotional material, such as a calendar and lists of hymns appropriate to various Sunday services throughout the liturgical year. The book has 183 folios, is of large format (305 x 205mm), and is written in a Gothic textura script, presented in two columns. This type of script was more usual in England than the bȃtarde or rotunda scripts used on the Continent. Taken together, the layout and size of the volume more generally suggest that it was intended as a lectern book rather than one for private devotion. It may originally have been intended to form part of a Breviary, which includes the texts necessary to celebrate the various services of the Divine Office throughout the day.

The manuscript was acquired by Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460-1539) of Suffolk, the secretary to Jasper Tudor and Solicitor General under Henry VII. Lucas is identified by the added arms in the manuscript of Lucas and Morieux quarterly, and of these arms impaling Kemys of Monmouthshire. This identifies the owners of the manuscript for whom these arms were added as Thomas Houchon Lucas and his wife Elizabeth Kemys (d. by August 1528) who married in 1486 (or 1489). The manuscript remained in the family and has the bookplate of Thomas Philip Earl de Grey of Wrest Park (1781-1859) inside the upper cover. Thomas Philip succeeded to the titles 2nd Earl de Grey and 6th Baron Lucas of Crudwell in 1833.

Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter
Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter

The manuscript has a contemporary 15th-century binding of red velvet over wooden boards, with metal bosses at the four corners and in the centre of both covers, and corner pieces in unusual shapes with bird head terminals. Although worn in places, the bosses have protected the velvet and accordingly much of the red velvet is remarkably well preserved given its age. The binding may have been added in London shortly after the book was produced.

The Lucas Psalter binding of red velvet with metal bosses at the corners
The Lucas Psalter, with its 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses

We plan to digitise the manuscript and will publish a further blog with more details about the manuscript and its artist, the Master of Edward IV, when it is available on the Digitised Manuscripts website. You can read more about the manuscript in the British Library’s press release.

The Lucas Psalter was purchased by the British Library with the generous support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library and the British Library Collections Trust.

Kathleen Doyle

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15 November 2020

Parchment in prison: imprisoned medieval writers

In 1484, Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician who served Lady Margaret Beaufort and her son (the future King Henry VII), was arrested at the order of King Richard III for his loyalty to the Tudors. Despite being incarcerated at the Tower of London, Lewis obtained writing materials and employed his scientific knowledge to compose several innovative astronomical works. In a newly-acquired collected volume of his scientific works that was finished in the decade after he was released and may have been written under his close supervision (Add MS 89442), Lewis states that he produced some of his astronomical tables — containing calculations for lunar eclipses and solar times — during his incarceration. Lewis is one of several medieval authors who composed original works in prison. On the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, we explore some of their most famous works.

An astronomical table with Arabic numerals in brown and red ink and an inscription above that notes that Lewis of Caerleon composed it at the Tower of London

Lewis of Caerleon’s table on solar times ‘newly made in the year of Our Lord 1484 in the Tower of London’ (London or Cambridge, 1485–c. 1495): Add MS 89442, f. 121r

Boethius (c. 480–524), a Roman statesman who had fallen out of grace with the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, is famously known for writing The Consolation of Philosophy — a philosophical work touching on the subjects of free will, happiness, fate and fortune — while awaiting his trail and execution. His work presents a dream-vision in which Lady Philosophy consoles him by highlighting that wealth and power are merely transitory and only internal virtues and qualities can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune. As its central message corresponded with Christian ideas, Boethius’s work became one of the most influential and widely-read books of the Middle Ages.

Boethius, a bearded man lying in bed on the left, is visited by Lady Philosophy, a woman with a red cloak and wearing a crown. She points to a blind-folded woman inside a wheel, representing the Wheel of Fortune.

Boethius visited by Lady Philosophy (Northern France, c. 1425–1475): Add MS 10341, f. 31v

Undoubtedly inspired by Boethius, Thomas Usk (d. 1388), a scrivener and legal clerk of London, wrote his own dream-vision while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution for purported treason. His poem, known as The Testament of Love, sees him visited by Lady Love who, much like Lady Philosophy, discusses the transitory nature of worldly bliss and the superiority of true inner happiness, offering consolation to the author in his state of despair. No manuscript copies of his poem survive, but it gained a wide readership after William Thynne included it in the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer, late medieval England’s most renowned poet, that he first published in 1532.

The opening of Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, printed in black ink in 1598.

The Testament of Love in Thomas Speght’s publication the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London, 1598): Add MS 42518, f. 317v

In 1534, Thomas More (1478–1535), former Lord Chancellor of England, followed Boethius’s example after King Henry VIII had imprisoned him at the Tower of London for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry as head of the English Church. Apprehending a painful death, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. The book offers consolation to those fearing physical torment: it argues that death by torture is no worse than a natural death and that one can entirely forget about one’s own physical pain by contemplating the suffering that Christ endured for mankind. After his execution, More’s book circulated in manuscript form before becoming widely available in printed publications of his collected works.

The opening of Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, written in black ink, beginning: ‘A dialogue of comfort against tribulation made by a Hungarian in Latin and translated out of Latin into French and out of French into English’.

Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (England, c. 1550): Harley MS 1634, f. 1r

But imprisoned authors did not only write ‘books of consolation’. After he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394–1465), produced some of the most elegant medieval love poetry during his 25 year-long captivity in England. He is best known for his ‘Book of Love’, a sequence of lyrics presented within the narrative framework of two dreams in which an imprisoned lover pursues Lady Beauty at the court of the love of God; after she dies during his absence, he renounces love before wooing a second lady. The ‘Book of Love’ survives in both French and English versions. The latter, extant in Harley MS 682, contains more than 6500 lines of verse, and may have been composed by Charles himself, since he spoke English fluently.

A poem by Charles of Orléans written in brown ink in a Gothic cursive script

An English poem by Charles of Orléans, beginning ‘As for farewell farewell farewell farewell / And of farewell more than a thousand score’ (England, 1439–1440): Harley MS 682, f. 147r

The Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa (fl. late 13th century) also employed his literary skills when he found himself locked up with the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1354) at Genoa, then at war with the city-state of Venice. In their prison cell, he penned down the marvellous stories that Polo recounted about how he, together with his father and uncle, had followed the Silk Road deep into Asia to meet Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, serving as his emissary to China for fifteen years before returning to Italy. Although the veracity of Polo’s account is debated, it provided the most detailed and accurate description of Asia that was available at the time. Spiced with marvellous elements, The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller and survives in scores of manuscripts today.

Three scenes from the Travels of Marco Polo, showing two men before a king (upper left panel) and kneeling before a pope (upper right panel), and undertaking a journey in a boat (lower panel).

The Travels of Marco Polo (Paris, 1333–c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 58r

John of Rupescissa (c. 1310–1366x70), a Franciscan friar from Aurillac worked in entirely different genres. Spending much of his life in prison, Rupescissa believed that the many hardships that he had endured there — he contracted the plague and was nearly killed by a fellow prisoner — had prepared him to receive supernatural insights about the world. In a visionary dream, he believed to have seen an infant Antichrist who had been recently born and would soon herald the end of times. He also believed that mankind could protect itself from the upcoming apocalyptic disasters and defeat Antichrist by harnessing the divine powers hidden inside nature through the art of alchemy. This prompted him to write both books about prophecies and ‘alchemical medicine’, such as the Liber de consideratione quintae essentiae omnium rerum (Book on the Consideration of the Quintessence of All Things). Although the papal court at Avignon had declared him mad, his reputation as a prophet helped his works gain wide circulation during the later Middle Ages. You can read more about him in Leah DeVun's Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupecissa in the Late Middle Ages (New York, 2009).

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence, written in black ink, beginning: ‘The first boke of the consideration of quintessence of all things’

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence (England, 15th century): Sloane MS 353, f. 2r

The works of the medieval authors discussed here were in most cases deeply informed by their experiences of imprisonment. To some degree, this influenced their popularity. Their insights gained and expressed in extreme hardship gave them a credibility and authority that few other authors could claim in speaking about the nature of the world and the human condition.


Clarck Drieshen

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13 November 2020

PhD placement on Irish manuscripts

Are you doing a PhD using medieval or early modern manuscripts written in Irish? Perhaps you are considering a curatorial career? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the medieval manuscripts section at the British Library in 2021.

The Library holds a collection of over 200 Irish manuscripts which includes many important medical, literary and legal texts. Two of these manuscripts have recently been on loan. The 16th-century legal and grammatical miscellany compiled by Domhnall Ó Duibhdábhoirenn (Egerton MS 88) was loaned to Galway City Museum in 2019.

A manuscript page written in Irish, in two columns

An Irish legal and grammatical miscellany: Egerton MS 88, f. 65r

And we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), produced in Armagh in the 12th century, to the Ulster Museum in Belfast this year.

A manuscript page showing a coloured lion, the symbol of St Mark

The evangelist symbol of the lion of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

We are now advertising a placement for a PhD student with experience working with manuscripts written in Irish. The placement will focus on creating new online records and updating existing records in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. The placement is available for three months full-time, or up to six-months part-time, between May and December 2021. Full details are on our website.

The Library is currently participating in the Digital Resources for the Medieval Gaelic World network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Irish Research Council. This network is focusing on the impact of digitisation on research into medieval Ireland and Scotland. We hope to extend the digital coverage of our Irish manuscripts in the future. The online catalogue records that the placement student works on will be an important first step towards that goal.

As well as working on the catalogue records, the successful applicant will be involved in a range of different curatorial activities. These will include helping to promote awareness and understanding of the Irish manuscripts in the Library’s collection so, if you fit the bill, you could find yourself writing your own posts about Irish manuscripts for this Blog next year.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students who have the right to study in the UK. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK short-term study visa requirements. Further details about eligibility, funding, conditions and how to apply are also on our website. The deadline for applications is 5pm on Friday 18 December.

If you have any queries about the placement, you can email our colleagues in the Research Development team ([email protected]) who will be happy to help.

Claire Breay

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12 November 2020

Ottonian imperial style in Echternach Gospel-books

After the break-up of Charlemagne’s empire, his heirs continued his policy of patronising and commissioning great works of art.  The king of East Francia, Otto I (d. 973), revived Charlemagne’s title of Holy Roman Emperor in 962, and together with his son and grandson (also Ottos) gave his name to a monumental, imperial artistic style now known as Ottonian art.  These emperors and their Salian successors (a subgroup of Franks from the Lower Rhine area), Conrad II (r. 1024-39), and Henry III (r. 1039-56) commissioned some of the finest illuminated Gospel-books ever made.

A small but incredibly lavish group of these manuscripts were produced at the wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St Willibrord in Echternach, in modern day Luxembourg, 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Trier.  These include two manuscripts now in the British Library, one in the Harley collection (Harley MS 2821) and one in the Egerton collection (Egerton MS 608).

‘Carpet’ page, resembling a textile, with a central medallion of a lion and four corner medallions of birds
A patterned page with a lion and four birds before the opening of St Luke’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, f. 99r

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harley Echternach Gospels is their use of fictive textiles as decoration, including facing pages painted to resemble silk before the individual Gospels.  In many Echternach manuscripts the patterns are monochrome or in varying shades of the same colour, and include animals familiar from Byzantine silks, often in facing or opposing pairs.  In the Harley example the patterns are more colourful and centralized, and resemble the patterns of Late Antique weaving or mosaic floors. 

These decorative pages may serve to make the opening of the Gospel text a more revelatory event.  In this sense they may be similar to the actual silk curtains remaining in some manuscripts which can be lifted to view individual miniatures, such as those in the Arnstein Bible which we blogged about previously. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Miniatures of St Mark the Evangelist and the Nativity before the opening of St Mark’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, ff. 67v-68r

In addition to their independent use as carpet pages, the textile patterns are used as marginal decoration for the first time in the Echternach Gospel-books (Nordenfalk, Codex (1971), p. 98).  This is seen, for example, in the full border around the Evangelist portrait of St Mark and the facing depiction of the Nativity. 

The painting of the figures is also highly stylised, using jewel-like vibrant colours.  In content they are indebted to earlier models, with some innovations.  For example, according to tradition, St Mark established the Church in Alexandria and was the first bishop there; in the Harley Echternach Gospels, he wears a chasuble, or outer vestment of a bishop, and he makes a gesture of blessing.  This contrasts with the more typical portraits in which the Evangelists are depicted in the act of writing out their texts. 

Opposite each of the Evangelists in the Harley Echternach Gospels is a full-page scene, reflecting four important episodes arranged in chronological order: the Annunciation faces St Matthew; the Nativity, St Mark; the Crucifixion, St Luke; and the Ascension, St John.  This selection may result from the contraction of a much longer narrative cycle that appears in three of the surviving Echternach Gospel-books. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Evangelist portrait of St Mark and a miniature of the Nativity, before the Gospel of Mark: Egerton MS 608, ff. 59v-60r

The Echternach Gospel-book in the Egerton collection has been digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.  The similarities in composition, content and style with the Harley Echternach Gospels are immediately apparent.  For example, the Evangelist portrait of St Mark also depicts him seated frontally, holding a book on his lap and making a gesture of blessing.  His chair features dog-head and feet terminals, and St Mark is flanked by columns and curtains, with his symbol of the lion above.  Opposite, the Nativity scene parallels the two-level composition in an enclosed architectural space, with the Child and animals above St Joseph and the Virgin. 

Oak front cover with a hollow in the centre
Original oak board of the upper cover: Egerton MS 608

The Egerton Echternach Gospels is a slightly smaller book and doesn’t include the patterned textile margins that are so prominent a feature of the more elaborate Echternach Gospel-books.  However, it retains its thick original oak binding, with a hollow in the front cover.  Originally it is likely that this space was filled with an ivory or metalwork plaque, and perhaps relics, indicating the importance and status of this still lavish Gospel-book. 

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis: An Echternach Gospel-Book of the Eleventh Century (Stockholm, 1971). 

Henry Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, 2nd edition (London, 1999), pp. 186-205.


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