Medieval manuscripts blog

5 posts from June 2022

30 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.


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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.

24 June 2022


Some of you may have seen the exciting news that Trinity College Dublin has digitised its manuscript of the Book of St Albans by Matthew Paris. Initiatives of this kind whet the appetites of scholarly researchers and members of the public alike. We may not all have the opportunity to handle medieval manuscripts at first hand, but we always welcome the chance to see them up close in virtual form. Matthew Paris (d. around 1259) would have been proud as punch to see his work shared with so many people.

To celebrate this achievement, we thought we'd share with you another three manuscripts that were written and illustrated by Matthew Paris himself, all of which are held by the British Library (we're going to call them the MP3). We start by letting his elephant take a bow, which is found in the work known as 'Liber Additamentorum' (The Book of Additions), Cotton MS Nero D I. (All of the manuscripts we mention are available in full and for free online; no manuscripts were hurt in the writing of this blogpost.) We have written about this pachyderm before in our blogpost The Elephant at the Tower. The elephant was a gift to King Henry III of England (reigned 1216–1272) from Louis IX of France. Matthew had seen the animal in person, writing:

'About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight.'

The unnamed creature was said to be 10 years old, 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor. Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum contains this full-page illustration of the elephant, another version of which is found in a manuscript at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This begs the question, 'one trunk or two?'

Drawing of the elephant at the Tower of London by Matthew Paris

The elephant kept at the Tower of London, described and illustrated by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

Number 2 in our list of the famous MP3 is a map of Britain, drawn by Matthew Paris himself. It belongs with his Abbereviatio chronicorum, but was removed and bound separately in 1929 (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1). This map is effectively a gazetteer of 13th-century England, Wales and Scotland, drawn by someone who spent most of their life in St Albans and had no access to satellite mapping. Most notably to the modern eye, northern Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, Canterbury is located due South of London (and can be traced in a straight line via Newark, Doncaster and Durham to Newcastle, along the route of the East Coast mainline), and Mount Snowdon is represented by a sandcastle.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris

Map of Britain by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

And last, but not least, we have the autograph manuscript that contains Matthew's itinerary to Jerusalem and other maps, his Historia Anglorum, and the third part of his greatest historical work, the Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII). It's only by looking at this manuscript in the round that you get some sense of Matthew's wide range of interests, of his detailed chronicling activity, and of his artistic achievement. It's difficult to pick out any particular page for special attention — the candidates include his portraits of the kings of England and another map of Britain — but we have decided to go with the self-portrait of Matthew himself, portrayed kneeling before the Virgin and Child. Matthew Paris was not the most modest of men, to judge by his many writings. In this illustration he captures himself in a more suppliant pose, lying prostrate on the floor, but with his name picked out in blue and red capitals for the readers' attention. It's to this monk that we owe so many marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Miniature of the Virgin holding the birthday Jesus  with Matthew Paris lying at their feet

Miniature of the Virgin and Child, with a self-portrait by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r


Julian Harrison

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22 June 2022

The Law Code of Alfonso X

Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon and Galicia from 1252 and 1284, was so renowned for his interest in books and scholarship that he was nicknamed ‘El Sabio’ (the Wise or Learned). He promoted and consolidated Spanish language in the kingdom, having astronomical, medical and scientific documents translated into the vernacular.

King Alfonso enthroned, holding a sword and a book surrounded by his seated subjects, with buildings in the background
King Alfonso enthroned, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X (Castile or Leon, 1250-1300): Add MS 20787, f. 1r

When he came to the throne in 1252 Alfonso found that much of the legislation in his newly-unified kingdom was from varied traditions, making it contradictory and sometimes unjust. He set to work to codify it in three major legal works. Alfonso’s Law Codes, laying out traditional laws and rights, pertaining to both the Church and State, had a profound influence on Spanish literature and culture from the earliest surviving Spanish chivalric tale, El Cavallero Cifar (c. 1300), to numerous plays of the Golden Age (16th-17th centuries).

King Alfonso in a curtained room dictates to three seated figures, one of whom, a scribe, is writing in a book
King Alfonso dictates to a scribe, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

The king also promoted the study of law at the University of Salamanca, granting two new prestigious positions for professors of law, who were to be given the title Cavallero and Señor de Leyes, along with special privileges including being allowed to enter the presence of emperors, kings and princes at any time. One section of the law code was devoted to the educational ethos and curriculum of universities.

The king stands with courtiers, instructing workmen with tools who are building a church
The king instructs workmen who are building a church, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 75r

During Alfonso’s reign a workshop under his patronage produced a number of highly illuminated manuscripts, the most famous being the Cantigas de Santa Maria which contain 400 songs about the miracles of the Virgin Mary in Galician-Portuguese with musical annotation. Four copies survive, now located in libraries in Spain and Italy. In the same workshop a manuscript of the Primera Partida, the first book of Alfonso's most famous law codes known as the Siete Partidas, was produced. It is the earliest known copy, dated to second half of the 13th century, and is now in the British Library (Add MS 20787).

Initial ‘A’ with King Alfonso kneeling before an altar and presenting a book to God, whose face appears above
Initial ‘A’ with King Alfonso presenting a book to God, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

Each of the seven books of the code begins with a letter in the name ‘ALFONSO’, so the Primera Partida begins ‘A servicio de Dios’ (In the service of God). It deals with the relationship between the lawmaker and God. And in this manuscript there are miniatures or pictorial initials at the beginning of each section, depicting the functions of the contemporary church and the clergy in Alfonso’s kingdom.

The letter ‘P’ with a child in a carved font being baptised by a bishop, who raises his hand in blessing; a priest and men and women stand round the font
The letter ‘P’ with a child being baptised by a bishop, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787 f. 4r


The letter ‘D’ with a bishop holding a book while performing an exorcism; a devil emerges from the mouth of a writhing figure, while others pray and assist
The letter ‘D’ with a bishop performing an exorcism, from the Law Codes of Alfonso X: Add MS 20787 f. 37r

You can admire all the pages of the British Library's copy of the Law Code of Alfonso X on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and read more about medieval legal manuscripts in our article on the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Chantry Westwell

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14 June 2022

Fact-checking ‘Anne Boleyn’s’ girdle book

Sometimes the smallest manuscripts are the most precious. One object that is turning heads in our Gold exhibition is a miniature prayer book bound in gold covers (Stowe MS 956). In the 16th century, it was fashionable for aristocratic ladies to wear tiny books like this hanging from their belts, or ‘girdles’. This girdle book attracts attention because of a story associating it with a particularly important owner. It is rumoured to have it belonged to Anne Boleyn. The ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII of England is said to have handed it to one of her ladies-in-waiting before her execution in 1536. But is the story true? We decided to do some investigating.

Girdle book with ornate gold covers, shown closed and standing upright with its spine towards us
Girdle book in gold filigree covers, measuring 40 x 30 mm: Stowe MS 956

Did it really belong to Anne Boleyn?

On the face of it, the story sounds compelling. The rich gold binding certainly appears fit for a queen. Inside, the book contains selected Psalms translated into English verse. This fits with Anne Boleyn’s known interest in vernacular bible translations, for example the British Library holds her copy of William Tyndale's illegal translation of the New Testament into English (C.23.a.8).

The volume also opens with a miniature portrait of Henry, showing him with a benevolent expression, his cherry lips upturned in a smile and his blue eyes sparkling. It makes quite a contrast with the king’s formidable glower in many of his larger portraits. It looks like the face that Henry might turn upon a love interest, like Anne during their lengthy courtship.

The girdle book, held open by someone's finger, on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
The girdle book, held open to the miniature portrait of Henry VIII: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

A manuscript mix-up

Sadly, a closer look at the evidence reveals some major problems with this story. The most significant one concerns its source. If we look back through the records, we find that the story about Anne Boleyn was first applied to this manuscript by a London bookseller and publisher named Robert Triphook (1782-1863). Triphook briefly owned the manuscript, and he described it in the notes to his edition of George Wyatt’s biography of Anne Boleyn (1817), and in his bookseller’s catalogue (1818). The manuscript was then bought in 1818/19 by the Duke of Buckingham for the Stowe Library, which eventually entered the British Library (see our Collection Guide to the Stowe Manuscripts).

It seems that Triphook got the Anne Boleyn story from an account by the engraver and antiquary George Vertue, which Triphook cites in his notes to Wyatt’s biography. Vertue’s original notes are now preserved in the British Library. In 1745 Vertue described seeing in the possession of one Mr Wyatt a ‘little prayer book … set in gold’ which was given by Anne Boleyn to one of the Wyatt Family.

Vertue's handwritten notes
Description of a miniature prayer book bound in gold, from George Vertue’s notebook: Add MS 23073, f. 29r

But Vertue was actually describing a different manuscript. Another 16th-century gold girdle book said to have belonged to Anne Boleyn was circulating in the 18th and 19th centuries, owned by the descendants of the Wyatt family. The Wyatt manuscript first appears in the Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries on 24 March 1725. The description is accompanied by a drawing which shows a manuscript with two clasps on the fore-edge and two raised bands on the spine, unlike the Stowe manuscript which has one central clasp and five raised bands.

Handwritten minutes of the Society of Antiquaries with a drawing of a manuscript
Description and drawing of the Wyatt manuscript, Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 24 March 1725: SAL/02/001 - Minute book, volume 1 (1718-1732), p. 151 © The Society of Antiquaries of London (Source: Society of Antiquaries)

A description and engraving of the Wyatt manuscript were also published by the scholar Robert Marsham in an article in the journal Archaeologia in 1873. He said that Robert Marsham, second lord of Romney, inherited it from his cousin Richard Wyatt.

Engraving of an ornate book cover with clasps and suspension loops
Engraving of the gold covers of the Wyatt manuscript, published by Robert Marsham in 1872 (Source: Google Books)

As Marsham noted, the binding of the Wyatt manuscript was near-identical to a design by Hans Holbein in his ‘Jewellery Book’, now held in the British Museum. The only difference is that Holbein’s design incorporated the letters ‘T’, ‘W’ and ‘I’, possibly referring to Thomas and Jane Wyatt, who married in 1537.

A drawing of an ornate book cover by Holbein
Hans Holbein, Design for a metalwork book-cover, from the 'Jewellery Book' © The Trustees of the British Museum (Source: The British Museum)

The Stowe manuscript is clearly not the Wyatt manuscript, the present-day whereabouts of which are unknown. It seems that Triphook transferred the Anne Boleyn story to the Stowe manuscript through a case of mistaken manuscript identity. 

The covers of the Stowe girdle book opened, showing the front and back cover and spine
The gold openwork covers of Stowe MS 956

The problem with the portrait of Henry VIII

If the Stowe manuscript did not belong to Anne Boleyn, how do we explain the portrait of a smiling Henry at the beginning? Unfortunately, the answer may be that the portrait is not original. The earliest accounts of the manuscript by Triphook in 1817-18, and the Stowe librarian Charles O'Conor in 1819, do not mention the portrait. References to the manuscript from 1849 and 1881 state that the portrait was believed to be a modern addition. Was it was added to the manuscript between 1819 and 1849 to help validate the Anne Boleyn story?

Portrait of Henry VIII from the Stowe girdle book
Miniature portrait of Henry VIII from the girdle book: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

We would need to do scientific testing to be sure, but there are reasons to be suspicious. Henry’s uncharacteristic smile has already been noted. The miniature also depicts him with larger eyes and a rosier complexion than are usual in 16th century portraiture. Compared to other Tudor portrait miniatures such as those of Henry below, the portrait also stands out for its loose brushwork and rectangular rather than circular frame.

Portrait of Henry VIII from the Psalter of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII as King David, from the Psalter of Henry VIII (c 1540-1541): Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3r


Portrait miniature of Henry VIII
Portrait miniature of Henry VIII on vellum, c.1540-70: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022 (Source: The Royal Collection Trust)


An illuminated treaty with a portrait miniature of Henry VIII inside the initial 'H'
Portrait miniature of Henry VIII on the Ratification of the Treaty of Ardres, 1546: Paris, Archives nationales AE/III/33, detail (Source: Musée des Archives nationales)

The original owner

We will probably never know for sure who originally owned the Stowe girdle book, but there is one clue. The verse psalm translations in this manuscript survive in just one other copy, in a manuscript also held at the British Library (Add MS 30981). This other manuscript contains an inscription stating that the translation was done by John Croke (1489-1554), a clerk in chancery to Henry VIII. It also includes a Latin dedication from Croke to his wife Prudence (m. 1528/9):

‘Hos mea me coniunx psalmos Prudentia fecit/ Vertere, nec tedet suasum virtutis amore’.

(These psalms, my wife Prudence made me translate: nor, being persuaded, am I wearied by the task, due to love of virtue).

Translation from Clare Costley King'oo, Miserere Mei (Notre Dame, 2012), p. 111.

Since both manuscripts appear to be written in Croke’s own hand, perhaps the most likely recipient of both volumes was Prudence Croke.

Manuscript of Croke’s psalms in English verse
The beginning of John Croke’s psalms in English verse translation: Add MS 30981, f. 3r

You can also find out more about girdle books in our previous blogpost on miniature books, and check out this Book of Hours that really did belong to Anne Boleyn. Our Gold exhibition is open until Sunday 2 October 2022 and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson

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.

07 June 2022

Golden scenes from the Life of Christ

Eight leaves with narrative scenes from the Life of Christ on gold grounds feature in our Gold exhibition. They are now separated from any text, but it is very likely that originally they formed part of a prefatory cycle of images appearing before the book of Psalms. Because they have been de-contextualised, the leaves’ origin is uncertain and has been much debated. Suggestions range from centres in Denmark, Germany, northern France and Flanders, around 1200. The figures are rendered in bold primary colours, with thick black lines creating their features and outlining their clothing, made more vivid by the contrasting incised gold surface on which they are placed.

Miniature showing the Nativity of Christ, with Mary in bed holding the baby, and Joseph seated nearby. In smaller scenes below, two maids bathe the Christ Child, and the ox and ass watch over him as he sleeps
The Nativity: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 5r

All of the figures appear on burnished gold grounds, which have been incised with different patterns, including diamonds and swirling foliage. Hints of how the paintings were made are apparent in the glimpses of the reddish gesso, the base on which the gold leaf was laid, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds image. The gesso has been exposed in places due to damage of the gold. This aspect of their production is explored in more detail in the Library’s Gold exhibition, where these two leaves are featured in a section focused on technique.

The Annunciation to the shepherds, with a large angel gesturing to a group of shepherds, and a row of angels in the sky
The Annunciation to the Shepherds: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

The leaves are now kept separately, but until the 1930s they were bound together with a rare copy of the Heliand, a 9th-century poem in which the Four Gospels are combined into a single narrative account in Old Saxon (Cotton MS Caligula A vii). They were probably bound together by Robert Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631), whose vast collection of manuscripts was one of the foundation collections of the British Library.

The beginning of the Heliand, a text page with a decorated initial letter
Beginning of the poem Heliand, an account of the life of Jesus in Old Saxon epic verse: Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 11r

These leaves were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. For another example of a prefatory cycle in a Psalter digitised as part of the same project, see our previous blogpost on Prefacing the Psalms.

The Library’s Gold exhibition is a feast for the eyes, with 50 manuscripts and books from many different cultures, languages and time periods, all illuminated or bound in gold. It runs from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022, and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle

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.