Medieval manuscripts blog

7 posts from June 2021

27 June 2021

Prefacing the Psalms

From a relatively early date in the Latin West, luxury Psalters featured cycles of introductory or prefatory full-page images. Very often these focused on the life of Christ, although other subjects such as the Creation and King David were also featured. It is likely that these cycles of images grew out of the interpretation of the Psalms as a prefiguration of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This concept reflects Jesus’s comment that ‘all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me’ (Luke 24:44).

Prefatory images before the Psalms, showing Two miracle scenes
Two miracle scenes from the Life of Christ, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v

One large and impressive Psalter features twenty full-page prefatory images. It was probably made in Oxford because the calendar following the miniatures includes a reference to the translation (or reburial) of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, in 1180. The absence of another important event, the translation of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury into a new shrine in 1220, suggests that this manuscript may have been made before that occurred.

In this Psalter each illuminated page contains two scenes that illustrate events from the life of Christ. Sometimes the images include scrolls with biblical quotations that supplement and interpret the paintings, perhaps indicating that the original owner of the book may have been able to read Latin or would have viewed it with someone who could. For example, in the upper register of this image Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, but he is starting to sink into the sea. The banner proclaims ‘Modice fidei quare dubitasti’ (O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?) (Matthew 14:31).

Detail of miniature showing Christ walking on water as St Peter attempts to follow
Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

In the lower register of the same image is the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James, all kneeling below. Christ is enclosed in an almond shape mandorla, which was often used to frame and signify Christ in Majesty. Moses, to his left, is identifiable by the horns on his head. This attribute is based on the account of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which says that ‘he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:29), where the Hebrew word ḳaran was mis-translated as horned (the word can also mean ‘to radiate’).

Detail of miniature showing the Transfiguration of Christ
The Transfiguration, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

Another interesting aspect of the cycle in this manuscript is the use of silver, which unlike many medieval examples has not tarnished to black. This is particularly apparent in the sword and armour of the soldier who raises his sword to murder a young boy in the illustration of the Massacre of the Innocents. The mail of the soldier’s helmet, body armour and greaves (leg armour) is all carefully delineated and the silver retains its sheen.

Miniature of the Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below
The Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200, Arundel MS 157, f. 5r

The vivid images that preface the Psalms thereby enhance the devotional experience of reading and meditating on the Psalms, as well as providing a visual commentary on the biblical text. This beautiful Psalter was digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project and you can find out more about English manuscript illumination on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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24 June 2021

A medieval midsummer

To mark Midsummer's Day (24 June), we're taking a look at one of the sources for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as illustrated in some of the British Library's manuscripts — the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe. 

You may be familiar with Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Act V of The Dream, in which a band of 'mechanicals', played by Bottom and others, re-enact the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. A Midsummer Night's Dream was written most probably in the 1590s — the First Quarto was published in 1600 — but the 'mini-play' featuring the parts of Pyramus, Thisbe, the Prologue, the Lion, Moonshine and the Wall has much older origins. 

The story of the ill-fated lovers first emerges in its 'modern' form in Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed in AD 8. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in adjoining houses in Babylon, but were able to communicate only through a crack in the wall, due to their parents' rivalry. They arranged to meet near a mulberry tree, by the tomb of Ninus (the mythical founder of Nineveh), but Thisbe was disturbed by a lioness and fled, leaving behind her blood-stained cloak. When Pyramus discovered it, he assumed that Thisbe had been killed by a wild beast and fell on his sword, staining the white fruits of the mulberry tree with his own blood; Thisbe then returned and killed herself in turn with her lover's sword. The gods heard her dying lament and changed the mulberry fruits to their new dark shade in honour of the lovers.

In this 15th-century French translation of Ovid's text, known as Ovide moralisé, Thisbe is shown standing over Pyramus's body, in front of a mulberry tree and beside a fountain, stabbing herself with his sword.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wears a red and white dress and stabs herself in the neck. Pyramus wears a blue tunic and lies before her. A fountain stands behind them.

Thisbe kills herself in despair at finding Pyramus dead, in a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Southern Netherlands, 15th century): Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

Shakespeare's deliberately muddled version of the legend is perhaps the best-known adaptation, but a number of medieval authors also recounted the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. It turns up in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, completed in the 1350s, and in his De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), dating from 1361–62. In this 15th-century French translation of De claris mulieribus (Des cleres et nobles femmes), a red-gowned Thisbe is shown piercing her neck with the sword (this tale is not for the squeamish), with the walls of Babylon in the background.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing red pierces her throat with a sword. Pyramus wearing brown lies dead on the ground to her right.

The death of the lovers, in a translation of Boccaccio's On Famous Women (Paris, c. 1410): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 22r

Geoffrey Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women (1380s) and John Gower in his Confessio Amantis, composed at the request of King Richard II (1377–1399), rendered the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe for the first time in English. But it is Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) which supplies perhaps our favourite medieval image of this story. Illustrating her L'Épître Othéa is this miniature depicting the suicide of the lovers. To the rear, a lion is tearing with its teeth at Thisbe's cloak. In the foreground Pyramus lies prostrate beside a fountain, clutching his heart, while an ashen-faced Thisbe has plunged the sword through her chest, penetrating her back, and is about to fall to the earth. Behind them grows the mulberry tree and to their rear is what may be taken for the wall through which they communicated. Christine herself was the scribe of part of this manuscript, which was made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), the wife of King Charles VI of France (1380–1422).

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing an orange-red cloak kneels in the left foreground and has pierced her chest with a sword. Pyramus in blue lies to her right, clutching his heart. There is a fountain behind them and to the rear a lion rips at Thisbe's cloak with its teeth.

The death of the lovers in the Book of the Queen (Paris, c. 1410-14): Harley MS 4431, f. 112v

William Shakespeare's rendering of this episode in A Midsummer Night's Dream is more comical than tragic. The guests at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta are highly amused by the performance. Theseus turns down the chance to hear the prologue, 'for your play needs no excuse', and the actors finish with a dance. Happy ever after ... but far removed from the original macabre fate of Pyramus and Thisbe.


Julian Harrison

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20 June 2021

Caption competition June 2021

It's time to let the creative juices to flow. We'd love you to come up with a witty caption for this image from one of our medieval manuscripts. You can either make your suggestion using the comments box below or play along via Twitter (we are @BLMedieval). No prizes, just the kudos of showing off your wit in front of thousands of our readers!

A medieval manuscript illumination, showing a lady seated and holding a sword, with her son before her and armed men standing behind her

A miniature of Semiramis seated, with a sword, and her son, Ninus, before her, with armed men behind her: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 8v

16 June 2021

Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back

Vengeful, merciless and brutally violent... yes that’s right, we’re talking about medieval bunnies. Rabbits can often be found innocently frolicking in the decorated borders or illuminations of medieval manuscripts, but sometimes, for reasons unknown, these adorable fluffy creatures turn into stone-cold killers. These darkly humorous images of medieval killer bunnies still strike a chord with modern viewers, always proving a hit on social media and popularised by Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Beast of Caerbannog, ‘the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!’.

While re-cataloguing the Arnstein Passional, made at Arnstein Abbey in Germany around the 1170s, for the Harley cataloguing project, we spotted a particularly early example of killer bunny imagery (could it be the earliest known?). This decorated letter ‘T’ is being used as a gallows on which two rabbits or hares hang a human hunter. His identity is made clear by the hunting horn slung over his shoulder. The rabbits stand on their hindlegs and point with their front paws as if jeering in sinister glee.

Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’
Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’. The Arnstein Passional, Arnstein, Germany, c. 1170s: Harley MS 2801, f. 151r

This image gives us a clue about why medieval artists showed rabbits behaving so violently. In real life, rabbits and hares are docile prey animals. But in decorated initials and marginalia, medieval artists often depicted ‘the world turned upside down’, where roles are reversed and the impossible becomes the norm. So here, rabbits are violent hunters hellbent on punishing anyone who has committed crimes against rabbit-kind.

Perhaps the most elaborate example of the killer bunny theme appears in the Smithfield Decretals, illuminated in London in the 1340s. This manuscript contains multiple series of marginal scenes in which stories unfold over consecutive pages like a comic strip. In this series of scenes, we see how a group of giant beefy rabbits get their gruesome revenge on a hunter. First a rabbit archer shoots the hunter in the back, then the rabbits tie him up and haul him before a rabbit judge to be tried. After a guilty verdict is delivered, the ruthless rabbits drag the hunter away and behead him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hunter. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 59v-61v

Not content with inflicting punishment on the hunter, the fluffy ruffians then set their sights on a hound. Hounds were widely used for hunting rabbits and hares, making them prime targets for bunny vengeance. In a series of scenes mirroring the previous ones, the rabbits are shown shooting the hound with arrows, tying him up, trying him at rabbit court, carting him away and then hanging him.

Collage of images from the Smithfield Decretals in which rabbits capture, try and execute a hound
Rabbits capture, try and execute a hound. The Smithfield Decretals, decorated in London, England, in the 1340s: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 62r-64r

Another rabbit goes hunting for hounds in this Book of Hours made in England in the 1320s. On one page the rabbit sets out with a full quiver of arrows, blowing on a hunting horn. On the other side of the page he returns triumphant with his arrows used up and a small hound strung up on the end of his bow.

A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry
A rabbit huntsman sets out and returns with his quarry. A Book of Hours, England, 1320s: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v

Some rather more chivalrous rabbits engage in knightly combat with hounds in the margins of the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, made in Metz in France between 1302 and 1303. Here they take up lances, swords and shields and do battle. In one instance a bunny rides on the back of a snail while the opposing hound rides on the back of a bunny who looks like he’s just noticed with some puzzlement that he’s fighting on the wrong side.

A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances
A hound riding on a rabbit and a rabbit riding on a snail battle with shields and lances. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 294r
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields
A rabbit and a hound fight with swords and shields. The Breviary of Renaud de Bar (Winter portion), Metz, France, 1302-03: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 181r

But the rabbits don’t stop at conquering their traditional foes. Having got a taste for warfare, they are ready to take on any adversary. Like the Beast of Caerbannog, these savage rodents could strike fear into the heart of even the bravest knight.

A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs
A knight swings his sword at a rabbit which rears up on its hind legs. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add MS 49622, f. 149v
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields
A man and a rabbit approach one another with swords and shields. The Maastricht Hours, Liège, Belgium: : Stowe MS 17, f. 240v

They rampage through the manuscript margins, wielding axes and taking on anyone unfortunate enough to cross them.

An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king
An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24: Add 49622, fol. 13v
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound
An axe-wielding rabbit riding on the back of a hound. John le Breton, Treatise on the Laws of England, England, c. 1305: Harley MS 324, f. 3v 

Given the murderous reputation of medieval rabbits, the demonic expression on the face of this bunny baker raises alarming questions about the nature of his baked goods. Surely those aren’t human pies... are they?

A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven
A rabbit pushes a tray of baked goods into an oven. Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r 

Luckily, unlike their counterparts in medieval marginalia, 21st-century rabbits are sweet and harmless. But these medieval images remind us to always treat rabbits with respect – you never know when they might decide it’s time to strike back!

For more medieval rabbits, check out our previous blogpost on Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre. If you’d like to read more about the strange world of medieval marginalia, take a look at past blogposts such as Ludicrous figures in the margin, 'Virile, if somewhat irresponsible' design, and the ever-popular Knight v Snail.

Eleanor Jackson

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12 June 2021

Who should we trust?

On Saturday 12 June, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator (20:00–21:00 BST). In one segment of the programme, Stewart encounters two 'unreliable' medieval manuscripts at the British Library, in the company of Dr Hetta Howes and curator Julian Harrison. The manuscripts in question contain copies of Geoffrey of Monmouth's infamous History of the Kings of Britain and the dubious Travels of Sir John Mandeville. In both cases, Stewart Lee and his guests use these narratives to interrogate what it is to tell the truth, questioning where does fact end and fiction begin. (Stewart also brought along his O-Level History dissertation which analysed Geoffrey of Monmouth — will the programme reveal his final grade?)

A manuscript page written in brown ink, with pencil drawings of towers and other buildings in the lower margin

A 14th-century manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, with a marginal illustration of London: Royal MS 13 A III, f. 14r

Here at the British Library we look after several manuscripts of both the History of the Kings of Britain and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The first of these works was composed in the 1130s and survives in more than 200 medieval copies. Geoffrey claimed that he was translating into Latin an ancient book in the British language that had been given to him by his friend Walter Map: or was he? Mandeville's Travels in turn is a 14th-century travelogue, in which its narrator, a certain Sir John Mandeville, ventured from Europe to the Near East, Africa and Asia, having wondrous encounters along the way. One of our favourite versions of the Travels comprises a series of illustrations made in 15th-century Bohemia, which shows Mandeville setting out on his journey and reaching Byzantium and beyond.

A manuscript illustration showing a boat containing four figures, setting out to sea, with a castle in the left background and a hilly landscape in the rear right

Sir John Mandeville setting out on his journey: Add MS 24189, f. 3v

It was great fun to record this programme with Stewart and Hetta. Listen out for the broadcast this Saturday evening. Will the truth get in the way of a good story?

Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator is on BBC Radio 4, 12 June, 20:00 (GMT), available in the UK only.


Julian Harrison

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10 June 2021

Lewis of Caerleon’s eclipse tables in the spotlight

On the morning of 10 June, large parts of the Northern Hemisphere will see a total or partial solar eclipse, when the shadow of the Moon obscures the Sun. Nowadays we can easily find details about eclipses online, but medieval astronomers had to make complicated calculations. An impressive gathering of eclipse calculations survives in the most complete collection of the works of  Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician and astronomer. The manuscript, made under his close supervision between 1485 and 1495, is dedicated largely to predicting future lunar and solar eclipses. The British Library acquired the manuscript for the nation in 2020, and has since digitised it in full (Add MS 89442).

The opening page of a work on eclipses by Lewis of Caerleon, with a large blue initial with red penwork decoration in the left upper corner and astronomical diagrams on the right side.

The opening of Lewis of Caerleon’s work on eclipses (England, c. 1485–95): Add MS 89442, p. 39

Lewis of Caerleon made his eclipse tables in the 1480s. They are based on complicated mathematical exercises and provide exact details on the magnitude and duration of eclipses.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for solar eclipses written in tables with Arabic numerals in black and red ink.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for solar eclipses made in 1482: Add MS 89442, p. 41

What makes Lewis’s eclipse calculations remarkable is that he made some while incarcerated in the Tower of London. He had been personal physician to Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437–1492), Queen of England, and to Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509) and her son, the future King Henry VII (r. 1485–1509). In 1484, his loyalty to the Tudors caused King Richard III (r. 1483–1485) to order his arrest. Lewis remained imprisoned at the Tower until 1485. In his volume of collected works, he explains that his original eclipse calculations were lost when he was in prison, but that he composed new tables at the Tower. His new computations resulted in new values for his eclipse tables.

A note by Lewis of Caerleon on tables that he made while incarcerated at the Tower of London in black ink.

In a note at the foot of this page, Lewis Caerleon refers to eclipse tables that were taken from him at his arrest in 1484, and new ones that he made while he was incarcerated at the Tower of London: Add MS 89442, p. 65

At the Tower, Lewis probably had access to scientific books, enabling him to consult pre-existing eclipse tables and to expand upon these with his own computations. He was also able to measure the accuracy of his calculations. According to another manuscript of his works (Royal MS 12 G I), he observed an eclipse from the Tower of London on the afternoon of 16 March 1485. His collected works (Add MS 89442) contain detailed calculations for this solar eclipse. In observing it, Lewis may have been able to measure its different phases by using a simple stick, if the weather was not too cloudy.

A calculation by Lewis of Caerleon for the solar eclipse on 16 March 1485, written in two columns.

Lewis of Caerleon’s calculations for a solar eclipse on 16 March 1485: Add MS 89442, p. 71

Solar and lunar eclipses were considered important events in the Middle Ages. They were commonly believed to have an effect on people’s health and fortune, and to anticipate major world events. However, Lewis of Caerleon did not attach any astrological significance to eclipses. His main interest, it seems, was the study and computation of the ‘mechanics’ of the universe. He donated other copies of his eclipse tables to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and he provided detailed instructions to his readers on how they could calculate eclipses for themselves.

Lewis of Caerleon explains how to make eclipse tables, opening with a large blue initial with red penwork decoration and a title written in red ink.

Lewis of Caerleon explains how to make eclipse tables using the diameter of the Sun and Moon: Add MS 89442, p. 42

Lewis of Caerleon was not the first British astronomer to calculate future eclipses. In 1380, John Somer, a Franciscan friar of Bridgwater, made predictions about the times of future eclipses in his Kalendarium. He produced this work for his Provincial Minister, Thomas Kingsbury, at the request in turn of Joan of Kent (1326/1327–1385), mother of King Richard II.

Three circular diagrams in blue and gold for predictions for solar eclipses in the years 1431, 1433, and 1436.

Predictions for solar eclipses in the years 1431, 1433 and 1436 in a physician's folding almanac based on John Somer's Kalendarium (England, c. 1430–1431): Harley MS 937, f. 8r

In 1386, Nicholas of Lynn, a Carmelite friar, composed his own Kalendarium, at the request of John of Gaunt (1340–1399), Duke of Lancaster.

Seven rows of four circular diagrams in which blue to represent the shadows cast by the moon onto the sun in partial solar eclipses

Figures of solar eclipses from Nicholas of Lynn’s Kalendarium (England, 1387–15th century): Harley MS 1811, f. 30v

Similarly, another English astronomer known for his eclipse calculations is Richard of Thorpe, an Augustinian friar of York. Richard used the works of John Somer and Nicholas of Lynn for making a calendar for the Use of York for the years 1387–1462.

Eclipse tables of Richard of Thorpe in blue, green, purple, and red ink, with figures of solar eclipses in blue and gold in the right column.

Calendar, Use of York, with astronomical tables by Richard of Thorpe (England, c. 1430): Add MS 82946, f. 28v

Lewis of Caerleon was clearly familiar with the works of previous astronomers. He made clear that his calculations were based on those of leading English astronomers such as Simon Bredon (d. 1372), fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), Abbot of St Albans, and John Holbroke (d. 1437), proctor and chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He also drew upon the works of Arabic astronomers such as Al-Battānī (c. 858–929), and Jabir ibn Aflah (c. 1100–c. 1160).

A table of solar eclipses by Richard of Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon, written in black ink.

Tables for solar eclipses by Richard of Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, p. 67

Add MS 89442 is witness to the importance attributed to eclipses in the Middle Ages, as well as to the great skill of Lewis of Caerleon in making precise predictions of these events. The manuscript was acquired with the generous support of the Shaw Fund, the T. S. Blakeney Fund, the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library, the British Library Collections Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, and those who wish to remain anonymous.


We would like to thank Dr Laure Miolo, Munby Fellow in Bibliography, Cambridge University Library, for discussing her research with us. You can read more about Lewis of Caerleon’s manuscripts in her two-part blogpost (Part 1 and Part 2). 

Clarck Drieshen
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06 June 2021

Caption competition time

It's time to put on your thinking caps again. What do you imagine is happening here?

This scene is found in a manuscript of Les Grandes chroniques de France, made in Paris sometime between 1332 and 1350 (Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 17r). We know that it was made for John the Good, duke of Normandy (1332–1350) and subsequently King John II of France (1350–1364), probably before his accession to the French throne.

You can make your suggestions in the comments box below or via Twitter to @BLMedieval. We will publish or retweet the best ones.

A manuscript illumination showing a messenger kneeling on the right, dressed in red robes, presenting a letter to a king wearing a crown, with another figure standing behind him


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