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?'
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.
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 and Child, with a self-portrait by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r
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