Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts from May 2022

28 May 2022

The Tudors in Liverpool

A major new exhibition, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, is now on display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It brings together a significant number of the most famous Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, paintings from the Walker Art Gallery’s own collection and Tudor objects from around the UK. The exhibition presents the story of the five Tudor monarchs — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth — and explores life at the Tudor court, its cultural influences, family ties and political connections, as well as considering the Tudor dynasty’s legacy. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Westminster Tournament Challenge to this show, the only manuscript of its kind known to survive in England.   

The manuscript of the Westminster Tournament Challenge

Westminster Tournament Challenge, decorated with shields, Tudor roses and pomegranates and signed by King Henry VIII, 12 February 1511: Harley Ch 83 H 1

On 1 January 1511, Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, gave birth to a son. London was filled with celebrations: guns were fired from the Tower of London and the city bells were rung. Beacons were lit across the country to announce the royal birth. Henry VIII himself proclaimed that a two-day Burgundian-style tournament be held in Katherine’s honour at Westminster.

The Westminster Tournament Challenge was issued on 12 February 1511 and explains the tournament’s over-arching allegorical theme.  The text begins by introducing four knights or ‘challengers’ sent by Queen ‘Noble Renown’ of the kingdom of ‘Noble Heart’ to joust in England against all ‘comers’ or respondents in honour of the ‘birth of a young prince’. Henry VIII played the star role of ‘Ceure Loyall’ — Sir Loyal Heart — and wore a costume covered in the gold letters ‘K’ and ‘H’. Leading courtiers Sir Thomas Knyvet, Sir William Courtenay and Sir Edward Neville rode as ‘Vailliaunt Desyre’, ‘Bone Voloyr’ and ‘Joyous Panser’ respectively. 

The four knights entered the tiltyard on a magnificent pageant chariot decorated as a forest with a golden castle in the centre and pulled by a golden lion and a silver antelope. Their shields, which were presented to Katherine on the first day of the tournament, are shown in the left-hand margin of the Tournament Challenge, each bearing the initials of the knights’ allegorical sobriquets and surrounded by roses and pomegranates to represent Henry and Katherine. The tournament rules are set out in the middle section of the document. These would have been read aloud by heralds, before being signed by the four challengers and all the respondents, who, in reality, were leading courtiers and Henry’s tiltyard companions. Henry VIII’s large signature can be seen in the centre of the lower portion of the Tournament Challenge alongside other members of his court, including Charles Brandon, Thomas Howard and Thomas Boleyn.

A section of the Westminster Tournament Roll

Section of the Westminster Tournament Roll showing Henry VIII running a course as Sir Ceure Loyall, as Katherine of Aragon watches from the pavilion, 1511: the College of Arms, London

According to contemporary accounts, the tournament was the most lavish of Henry’s reign and a great spectacle of Tudor pageantry. The whole occasion was commemorated in the illustrated Westminster Tournament Roll preserved at the College of Arms, London. This impressive document is also displayed in the exhibition, presenting visitors with a rare opportunity to view the Tournament Challenge and Roll side by side.

Tragically, Prince Henry died just days after the tournament was held, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Katherine was stricken with grief, but Henry seemed less concerned. Both he and his wife were still young and the possibility of another heir did not seem remote. The king threw himself into preparing for war against France. He could not have known at this stage that Katherine would never provide him with a male heir.

The introductory panel at the entrance of The Tudors exhibition

The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics runs at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool from 21 May to 29 August 2022.


Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 May 2022

A marvel in gold and ivory: Queen Melisende’s Psalter

Every manuscript in our current Gold Exhibition is a sublime work of art, so it is hard to choose a ‘star of the show’. But surely one of the most fascinating items on display must be the exquisitely-made Psalter of Queen Melisende, a miraculous survival from the war-torn Crusader kingdoms in the 12th century. It is thought to have been the personal prayer book of the enigmatic Queen Melisende, who ruled the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou from 1131, and then with her son Baldwin until 1152. Some say it was a gift from Fulk to his wife when they were reconciled following a serious rift over power-sharing.

An illuminated page from the Melisende Psalter, photographed at an angle to show the light glancing off the gold
Page on display in GOLD: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131–1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

The opening pages consist of 24 miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary with inscriptions in Greek. The artists, working in the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, were probably westerners, but were strongly influenced by contemporary Byzantine art, as seen in the style of the figures. One of the artists signs himself ‘Basilius’ (Basil) on the last image of the series.

A child on an altar with two women and two men in robes. A dome behind.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Egerton MS 1139, f. 3r

These images are followed by a calendar with the signs of the Zodiac in roundels. The deaths of Melisende’s parents, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem (d. 1131), and Queen Morphia (d. 1 October, 1126/1127), daughter of an Armenian prince, are recorded in the calendar. On first day of October in the calendar are the words, written in gold ink: ‘Obiit E morphia jer[usa]l[e]m regina’ (The death of Morphia queen of Jerusalem).

Text page with gold writing and a roundel with a scorpion8r
Calendar page for October with a roundel containing the symbol of Scorpio, and the death of Queen Morphia (line 4), Egerton MS 1139 f. 18r

Next are the Psalms, beginning with the magnificent decorated pages on display in the exhibition (ff. 23v-24r). On the left-hand page, the giant letter ‘B’ for ‘Beatus’ is richly filled with interlace, vines, real and imaginary animals, and the figure of King David playing a harp. The design is drawn in black ink and instead of being coloured, it is entirely illuminated in gold. On the right-hand page, the words of Psalm 1 are written in gold capital letters on purple, with bars of gold between the lines of text and a gold border surrounding the page.

Gold panels with a letter B containing a king playing a harp; facing page has text in gold on red.
Pages on display in GOLD: Spectacular manuscripts from around the World: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp opposite a panel with display capitals containing the beginning of Psalm 1, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131 – 1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v-24r

The Canticles, the Our Father and the Creeds are followed by a Litany and prayers to the Virgin, the Trinity and various saints, some of whom are pictured.

A Female figure in a hooded red cloak and blue robe with her hands raised; patterned panels on either side
St Agnes at the beginning of a prayer for her to intercede with God, Egerton MS 1139, f. 211r

Only about the size of a modern paperback, this gold-filled treasure-book was once enclosed in an exquisitely carved binding of two ivory panels embellished with turquoises and garnets. These panels still survive, although they are now separated from the manuscript.

The scenes from the life of David on the upper cover are interspersed with cruel battles between the virtues and vices, accompanied by inscriptions in Latin.

Ivory panel with 6 scenes of David in roundels, including of him fighting animals, facing Goliath and playing the harp and scenes of battles between, and birds and foliage in the frame.
The Melisende Psalter, Upper cover with scenes from the life of David: Egerton MS 1139/1

The lower cover is based on the words in the Gospel of Matthew:

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

It shows emperors in different varieties of imperial Byzantine costumes performing acts of mercy. There is a bird labelled ‘Herodius’ (centre top), which is a possible reference to King Fulk, Melisende’s husband, since the biblical herodius was equated to the fulica, or coot, of the Bestiary tradition.

6 roundels with scenes of crowned figures performing deeds of mercy, with mythical beasts fighting in between.
The Melisende Psalter, lower cover with the six Corporal Works of Mercy: Egerton MS 1139/1

So what do we know of Queen Melisende? She was the eldest daughter and heir of King Baldwin II, and married the rich and powerful Count Fulk of Anjou in 1129. Though he tried to exclude her from the major decisions of the kingdom, she managed to retain the power bequeathed to her by her father and was an important patron of the Church, arts, and books in her kingdom. Later, she quarrelled with her son, Baldwin III, when she refused to hand over power to him entirely. They were later reconciled and Melisende continued to support him until her death in 1161.

A crowned man and a woman in gold cloaks joining hands before a bishop in a palace interior with a crowd of courtiers watching, one with a sword and a bird of prey.
The wedding of Fulk and Melisende in William of Tyre, Histoire d'Outremer (Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum in French), Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

William of Tyre, the contemporary historian, wrote this about the queen:

‘she was a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all affairs of state business, who completely triumphed over the handicap of her sex so that she could take charge of important affairs’.

With its rich use of gold, the Psalter of Queen Melisende is a splendid expression of this incredible queen’s power.

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

23 May 2022

Medieval and Renaissance Women: PhD placement

The British Library is currently digitising some of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, from the period between 1100 and 1600. You can read more about the project on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, the oldest autobiography in English: Add MS 61823, f. 1r

As part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the funders, Joanna and Graham Barker, are providing financial support for a six-month PhD placement, starting in summer 2022. The successful candidate will be based for the duration of the placement with the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at St Pancras, London. They will gain experience of cataloguing pre-1600 western manuscripts, and they will promote the Library’s collections by writing blogposts and text for the British Library website.

This placement will provide the successful candidate with a broader understanding of curatorial roles in a major research library, as well as experience of working with manuscripts (including rolls and charters) in a variety of genres and languages. They will gain insight into the Library’s digitisation processes, and they will benefit from day-to-day contact with the curators and hands-on access to the Library’s collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. During their time at the Library, the placement student will also have access to a wide range of workshops, talks and training.

The Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD placement is intended to support early career development and is suitable for students who may wish to pursue further academic research or are considering a career in a library, museum or similar heritage organisation. Students who have undertaken previous doctoral placements or internships with the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library have subsequently gone on to hold academic positions at universities in the UK and USA, to become curators, cataloguers and researchers in major libraries, or to work in heritage organisations.

Applicants for this position should be engaged in doctoral research at a university or higher education institution in the United Kingdom. International students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa residency requirements. Their field of research should be in a discipline related to the study of medieval and early modern manuscripts, such as history of art, history, languages and literature. The ability to read Latin and other western languages is an advantage, as is knowledge of medieval and/or early modern palaeography and codicology. The Library will provide training in cataloguing western manuscripts, and in writing blogposts and other interpretative text. 

The seal of the Empress Matilda

The seal of the Empress Matilda (1140s): Add Ch 75724

Prospective applicants should submit the attached form, in which they are asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Title of your PhD
  2. Please provide a brief summary of your research for a non-specialist audience (maximum 100 words)
  3. Please explain why you are interested in a placement at the British Library in particular (maximum (100 words)
  4. Please describe why this placement appeals to you, and what skills you will gain from it (maximum 400 words)
  5. Please outline any relevant skills, experience and interests you would bring to this placement (maximum 300 words)
  6. Please provide any additional information that you think would strengthen your application (maximum 200 words)

You should obtain approval from your PhD supervisor before submitting the application. The placement is for a maximum 6 months and should be undertaken before 31 March 2023. This is a funded placement (£1,600 per month, to a maximum £9,600).


How to apply

Please ensure that you have carefully read the Application Guidelines before completing and submitting the Application Form.

Download Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD Placement Application Guidelines (PDF)

Download Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD Placement Application Form (Word document)


The deadline for applications is 11.59pm on Monday 13 June 2022. Online interviews for the shortlisted candidates will take place in the second half of June.

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

11 May 2022

Collaborative doctoral studentship: The origins and development of the Cotton collection

We are pleased to announce the availability of a fully-funded collaborative doctoral studentship from October 2022, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA), under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.

The library of Robert Cotton (1571–1631) has been described as 'the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual'. This CDP offers a unique opportunity to produce an original piece of research on the origins and/or 17th-century development of Cotton's extraordinary collection.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.

This project will be supervised by Dr Thomas Roebuck and Dr Katherine Hunt, University of East Anglia, who are experts in early modern scholarship and collecting practices; and Julian Harrison and Dr Andrea Clarke, curators of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library. The award holder will be based at UEA, and will also be based at the Library for a significant proportion of the studentship. At UEA, they will join a thriving Medieval and Early Modern research community and have access to a host of training opportunities, and at the British Library they will benefit from behind-the-scenes access, learning from other professionals across the Library, and an extensive internal training offer. They will also join the wider cohort of CDP-funded students across the UK, and will be eligible to participate in CDP Cohort Development Events. This studentship can be studied either full- or part-time.

The Cotton library contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. This collection was perhaps the most important single means by which pre-Reformation textual culture was preserved: it became a repository of memory and a site of nation-making. But the origins of the library — how and why it was assembled — remain tantalisingly obscure. Its development and usage over the course of the 17th century also offers huge opportunities for fresh research into the history of antiquarian scholarship and its religio-political ramifications. This CDP offers the successful applicant a unique opportunity to produce a ground-breaking piece of research into the origins or development of the Cotton collection which is rooted in close study of Cotton's manuscripts themselves.

Research questions might include:

  • Where, when, and how did Robert Cotton (and his descendants) acquire the manuscripts that make up the Cotton collection?
  • How did Robert Cotton shape his collection? How did the coins, stones and printed books he collected complement his manuscripts?
  • To what extent is the Cotton library distinctive, compared to other libraries assembled in Europe at the same time, and what characteristics does it share with similar contemporary collections?
  • Is there any evidence that women had access to the Cotton library or made donations to it?
  • How was the library used in Robert Cotton's lifetime, and how did its usage change and develop over the course of the 17th century? What kinds of scholarly projects did it inspire?
  • How was the library used to intervene in contemporary political debates? How was the library itself shaped by the political and religious controversies of the 17th century?
  • How did the collection come to be regarded as a national library?
  • What role did Cotton's library play in the development of the idea of Britain's 'middle ages' or its national identity?  

We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.

Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification, or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting. Suitable disciplines may include, but are not limited to, English Literature, History, Art History, Classics, Modern Languages, and Library and Information Science. All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.

The deadline for applications is 8 June 2022. More details can be found on the UEA website.

05 May 2022

We’re going on a bear hunt

It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.

Illustration of a climbing bear in a manuscript margin
Illustration of a climbing bear in the margins of a Book of Hours, Ghent-Tournai area, c. 1425-50: Harley MS 2433, f. 76v (detail)

And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?

A printed playing card featuring nine illustrations of beasts, including the climbing bear in the centre
The ‘nine of beasts’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

The Master of the Playing Cards

The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.

Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.

A printed playing card, featuring seven illustrations of deer
The ‘seven of deer’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

Playing cards as manuscript models

Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.

One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.

A table showing images of two wild men and a deer from the Saluces Hours, next to two wildmen and a deer from the Master of the Playing Cards
Left: figures from the margins of the Saluces Hours, Add MS 27697, ff. 13r and 19r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:

A page from a Gutenburg Bible, with illuminated borders including the climbing bear
Illuminated Bible in Latin, printed by Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, in Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, vol. 1, leaf 161, gathering 17/3r, Source Digital PUL
Detail of the climbing bear from the Gutenburg Bible
The climbing bear from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL

The bear moves to Flanders

Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.

An illuminated page from the Book of Hours
An illuminated page from the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial of the Virgin and Child and a decorated border, from a Book of Hours (Diocese of Tournai, perhaps Ghent, mid-15th century): Harley MS 2433, f. 25r

A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:

A table of animal illustrations from the Harley Book of Hours, next to illustrations from the Master of the Playing Cards, showing a climbing bear, a crouching bear, a walking lion and a preening bird
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, ff. 76v, 68r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:

A page from the Ghent Privileges
A page from the Ghent Privileges, with a miniature of Johanna, Countess of Flanders and Hainault, and Thomas of Savoy, with a decorated border of acanthus leaves, flowers, birds, animals and coats of arms: Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source
A detail from the border of the Ghent Privileges, showing the climbing bear
Detail of a climbing bear from a border in the Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source

Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:

A table of images from the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges, showing a goat-like creature, a bat, a winged bipedal elephant, and an owl
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433. Right: figures Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583 (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm), Source

This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.

Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).

Four climbing bears from different books next to each other
The climbing bear in four different versions. Left: from the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, f. 76v. Centre left: from an engraved playing card by the Master of the Playing Cards, BnF, Source / BnF. Centre right: from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL. Right: from the Ghent Privileges, Vienna ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r, Source

Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?

You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.

Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).