Medieval manuscripts blog

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6 posts from October 2022

27 October 2022

A medieval best-seller: the Alexander Romance

The British Library’s major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth takes visitors on a remarkable journey through the legends and stories connected with one of the ancient world’s most renowned figures: Alexander the Great. The main source and inspiration for the stories highlighted in the show was the legendary Life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, one of the most popular texts of ancient literature.

Alexander, crowned, in a stone cylinder being carried into the sky by four giffens

Alexander ascends to heaven with griffins, in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 37r (detail)

Legends about Alexander's life, conquests and adventures had started in his own lifetime. Some stories were instigated by Alexander himself to legitimise his rule, others were spread by his soldiers and generals. The first stories were recorded in writing by Alexander’s companions, who collected their memoirs of the king’s conquests. Apart from some fragments quoted in other texts, these works are all now lost. But the stories themselves were often preserved in later histories of Alexander, such as Plutarch’s biography of him from the 1st century AD and Appian’s chronicle of his conquests from the 2nd century AD.

Extract from Harley MS 3485 showing text in red and black adn a miniature of a crowned figure

Plutarch's Life of Alexander, in the Latin translation by Guarino of Verona (Florence, 1470): Harley MS 3485, f. 367r (detail)

During his conquests, Alexander was accompanied by eminent scientists of his time. They jotted down wonders of the lands they visited, although once again only fragments of these works survive. This 2,200-year-old papyrus preserves a similar text. It talks about a legendary nation that beheaded its enemies, cut out their tongues and minced them with flour to serve as a special treat for dinner. The identification of these people is problematic but similarly gruesome stories are mentioned in Alexander’s adventures.

Papyrus fragments in a frame

An account of barbaric customs (Gurob, Egypt, 3rd century BC): Papyrus 489

The fantastical stories of Alexander, retold by historians, scientists and travellers, inspired others to fill in the gaps of the king’s life, wondering what he may have said or written in particular situations. Imagining such scenes was so popular that it was used in ancient education to teach students creative writing. This 2,000-year-old papyrus preserves such a school-text. It contains the homework of a child who was tasked to make up what Alexander would have said after he defeated Darius, the emperor of the Persians. The pupil's shaky hand devises a short speech for Alexander, in which he generously praises his dead opponent and demands a royal burial for him.


A model speech in the name of Alexander the Great (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 150–225): Papyrus 756

The most successful of these fictitious texts had a life of their own. One popular composition by an unknown author was a letter supposedly written by Alexander to his former teacher, Aristotle, about the marvels of the Eastern realms of the earth. Written originally in Greek and later translated into many languages, this letter depicts fantastic episodes faced by the Macedonian army on its long journey beyond India, featuring men with six hands, giant crabs, deadly sirens, a tooth-tyrant, and a monstrous three-horned beast that killed 26 men at once.

Text written on a manuscript roll

Beginning of Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle about the Sights and Miracles of India, preserved in a 15metre-long chronicle roll (England, possibly Battle Abbey, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Cotton Roll XIV 12, membrane 4

Around the 3rd century AD, in Alexandria, this rich array of stories, travelogues, speeches and letters was collected into one large narrative of Alexander’s life resulting in one of the most beloved books created in Antiquity — the Alexander Romance.

Alexander seated on his horse and carrying a sword while standing figures bow to him

Alexander’s entry to Rome with the senators bowing, from the earliest illuminated Greek manuscript of the Alexander Romance (Eastern Mediterranean, 13th century): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Barocci 17, f. 28v

Originally written in Greek, the Romance contains the life of Alexander coloured with extraordinary legends. It records his mythical origins from a dragon-shaped pharaoh, retelling his wise words and letters he exchanged with philosophers, politicians and kings, and the extraordinary battles he fought on land and water. It regales us with the most incredible adventures credited to Alexander, including his descent into the sea, his flight into the heavens and his encounters with monsters of the East taken from his fictitious epistle to Aristotle.

Alexander and his knights, mounted on horses, approach three headless human figures whose eyes are in their chests

Alexander facing the headless giants (Blemmydae), in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r (detail)

Soon after its composition, the text underwent incredible transformations. New stories were added to the original narrative from a variety of sources, creating an entangled network of Greek versions of the text. These variants were then translated into many of the languages of the medieval Mediterranean, from Coptic, Armenian and Syriac, through Latin, Arabic, Persian and Ethiopian, and onwards to a plethora of medieval vernaculars including French, English, German and Russian.

Brightly coloured engraving depicting figures with single legs, multiple arms, multiple heads and heads in their chests. Alexander is seated on a horse looking at the figures

'The Strange Men Found by King Alexander of Macedon', a hand-coloured engraving (Russia, c. 1820): British Museum 1934,0402.24

The British Library's Alexander the Great exhibition provides a stunning insight into the evolution of this medieval bestseller, showing how stories and legends were transmitted and adapted across two millennia. In different eyes, Alexander could be viewed as a powerful monarch, a mighty conqueror, a formidable tyrant, a wise philosopher, an inspired prophet or an all-knowing magician.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

25 October 2022

How King Henry VIII read the Psalter

A new exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England has recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition showcases the artistic legacy of the Tudors and reveals how England became a thriving home for the arts as the Tudor monarchs increasingly used imagery to legitimise and define the dynasty. 

Among the magnificent array of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, visitors will have the opportunity to see five items from the British Library, including Henry VIII’s personal Psalter, which has been loaned to the United States for the first time. 

King Henry's Psalter, shown open displaying a text page on the left and a miniature of Henry seated in his chamber on the right
King Henry VIII’s personal Psalter written and illustrated by Jean Mallard in 1540: Royal MS 2 A xvi, ff. 2v-3r

The Psalter was commissioned by the King himself in 1540 and written and illustrated for him by Jean Mallard, a French scribe and illuminator. It is a lavish production and is still in its original binding, which although quite threadbare, retains traces of deep red velvet. The Psalms are written in an elegant, humanist script and accompanied by exquisitely decorated initials showing birds, insects, fruit, flowers and foliage. 

But the Psalter’s true significance lies in its main illustrations, four of which depict Henry, and its annotations written by the King. Taken together, they demonstrate that by the 1540s Henry perceived himself as King David of the Old Testament who, according to tradition, composed the Psalms and whose story was used to justify Henry’s declaration of independence from Rome and to define the Royal Supremacy. It’s little wonder then that the Psalter is more heavily marked up than any other manuscript owned by the King. His copious handwritten notes provide evidence of him probing and contemplating the Psalms, eager to discover what they had to teach him in his new role as ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’. 

Visitors to the Met’s exhibition will see the Psalter displayed open at the first Psalm, which is accompanied by an image of Henry portrayed as David. He is shown sitting in his bedchamber, diligently reading and following the guidance of Psalm 1, which begins ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly … his will is in the law of the Lord.’ To reinforce the point that he considered himself one of the blessed who, as the Psalm instructs, meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, Henry commented ‘nota quis sit beatus’ (note who is blessed). 

A page from the King Henry Psalter with an illustration of the King seated in his chamber reading
Illustration showing Henry VIII studying his Psalter: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 3r

The Psalter contains another three illustrations that link Henry with King David. The second, which prefaces Psalm 26, shows David about to slay Goliath. David is recognisable as Henry, while Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who had excommunicated Henry in 1538. Contemplating this image, which represents the liberation of England from papal authority, must have given the King great satisfaction. The titulus or explanatory gloss added by Mallard in the margin reads ‘Christi plena in Deum fiducia’ (Christ’s full trust in God). One of Henry’s distinctive ‘tadpole’ signs draws attention to the words. They would certainly have resonated with Henry, who was convinced that his enemies would be sought out and destroyed because, like David, he put his trust in the Lord. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of David fighting Goliath
Henry VIII as David fighting Goliath: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 30r

Psalm 52 is accompanied by an illustration of Henry sitting in his Privy Chamber and playing a harp to identify him with the Psalmist. He is accompanied by his jester Will Somers, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades. Appearing rather dejected, the royal fool looks out of the picture towards the first verse of the Psalm, which tells us ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of the King and his jester
Henry VIII in the likeness of King David, playing the harp: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 63v

The image accompanying Psalm 68, which begins ‘Salvum me fac’ (Save me, O God), illustrates an episode in the Bible when David is forced to choose between three terrible punishments for his sinful behaviour. The image shows Henry VIII as a penitent King David, kneeling in supplication among the ruins. Mallard’s titulus, which translates as ‘In his distress Christ invokes God’, reminds the reader that David’s torment prefigures that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of King David kneeling in penitence
King David in penitence: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 79r

Several of Henry’s annotations also show him identifying with the Old Testament King and searching for guidance. One of the clearest examples is found next to Psalm 88. Using red crayon, Henry noted that the Psalm contains ‘the promise made to David’ and uses a wavy line and tadpole sign to highlight the verses ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty, and have exalted one chosen out of my people. I have found David my servant, with my holy oil I have anointed him.’ 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Psalm 88 which Henry notes contains ‘the promise made to David’: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 107v

A small number of Henry’s annotations, however, reveal more human concerns. One of the most poignant is found alongside the first half of verse 25 of Psalm 36 which reads: ‘I have been young and now I am old’. Henry, who was in his early fifties, very overweight and in poor health, must have been painfully aware that his time on earth was drawing to a close, and noted that this is ‘dolens dictum’ (a painful saying).

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Page from Henry VIII’s Psalter containing the King’s marginal comments, including top right, dolens dictum: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 45r

You can see this fascinating manuscript in person at The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England which runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 8 January 2023, or view it online at our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 October 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is now open

The British Library’s new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, invites visitors on a mythical journey across time and space. Following in the footsteps of one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, you'll encounter the many lands and legends of Alexander the Great.

DeAlexander sitting crossed legged on a throne as his bride stands in front of him

The Marriage of Alexander the Great, Firdawsi, Shahnamah, Sultanate India, 1438: Or 1403, f. 318r

Visitors to the exhibition will witness Alexander’s mysterious conception involving snakes and dragons, and will attend his birth surrounded by ominous portents of an exceptional career and a life of unparalleled adventures. The stories of Alexander’s origins are revealed through ancient objects and lavishly decorated medieval manuscripts, including the famous Talbot-Shrewsbury Book from the 15th century. This luxurious collection of legends, made for a royal patron, Margaret of Anjou (the future wife of King Henry VI of England), contains some of the most evocative illustrations of Alexander’s adventures.

The left hand image shows a man kneeling before a woman. The right hand miniature shows a couple in bed together

Alexander’s conception from Nectanebo the magician, who convinced Olympias, Alexander’s mother, that a god in the shape of a dragon would visit her in her sleep, but it was in fact he who came to her bed and fathered Alexander; in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose, the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book, Rouen 1444–45: Royal MS 15 E VI , f. 6r (detail)

Becoming the ruler of Macedon at the early age of 20, Alexander soon conquered the Balkans, marching on to attack his arch- enemy, the Persian Empire under King Darius III. After a series of battles, the two opponents faced each other in a final confrontation at Gaugamela in modern-day Iran. The battle, described in Persian poetry as a war of 'ants and locusts', inspired authors and artists across the world from the medieval West and the Middle East to the Caucasus. A strikingly dramatic representation is shown in one of the gems of the exhibition: the richly decorated Armenian version of Alexander’s legends from 1544, on generous loan from the John Rylands Library, Manchester.

A depiction of Alexander with a golden sword riding a horse A depiction of Darius III of Persia riding a horse while carrying a spear

Alexander (left) facing Darius, the Persian Emperor (right), from the Armenian Alexander Romance, Constantinople, 1544, John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester: Armenian MS 3, ff. 43v–44r

After defeating the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander marched further east. In one of his greatest military successes, he defeated the elephant-army of King Porus of India, and conquered today’s Punjab. This victorious battle is represented on an exceptional treasure, probably from Alexander’s lifetime or not much later. Known as the Porus Medallion, this silver medal, on loan from the British Museum, commemorates this triumph with a rare representation of Alexander attacking a war elephant.

The Porus Medalion. Coin showing a horse rider chasing after and elephant and rider

Alexander (left on a horse) and the bearded Porus, king of India, (right on an elephant), The Porus Medallion, Babylon(?), c. 323BC, © Trustees of the British Museum 1887,0609,1.

Alexander is famous for his desire to know and see more than anyone before him, and the legends take him beyond India to explore the marvels and wonders of the unknown realms of the world. The exhibition follows him on these fabulous journeys, as he faces giants and cannibals, fantastic beasts and monsters. We see Alexander taming the mythical griffins who will carry him to explore the sky in a flying machine. An unusual representation of this scene, on loan from the V&A, shows Alexander’s flight in exquisite metalwork, possibly from a 12th-century altar or cross.

Alexander seated in a carriage of pulled by two blue griffins. He holds a spear of meat above their heads

Alexander exploring the sky in a carriage of griffins, The Rolls Plaque, Liege 1150–1160, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.53-1988

Traversing the wonders of the East, our visitors will accompany Alexander as he consults the talking Trees of the Sun and Moon about his future. They'll follow him as he reaches Paradise but is refused admission, turning back towards Babylon to be crowned king of the world. Here we see the celebrations interrupted by bad omens. One of these is beautifully represented in a 700-year-old Persian manuscript, the earliest illustrated copy of the great Persian poet Nizami’s epic about Alexander, loaned by the Chester Beatty in Dublin.  A terror-struck Alexander examines a still- born child that is half-beast, half-human, an ominous sign that predicts his imminent death.

Alexander is seated in the middle of a crowd, He is being shown a child that has dog ears and a tail

Alexander examining the portentous child, Firdawsi, Shahnamah (Book of Kings): The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Per. 104.49

The omen was reliable: a few days later Alexander was dead. Some legends claim he was poisoned, others blame malaria and, according to new research, he may have died from alcohol poisoning. Whatever the truth, he did not rest even in death. After a fierce debate over his final resting place, Alexander's generals agreed that his body should be carried home. On the way to Macedon, his general Ptolemy hijacked the sumptuous funeral procession and took Alexander’s coffin to Egypt.

A coffin, upon which a crown is place, is carried by three men while onlookers argue

A Roman and a Persian debate the final destination of Iskandar’s coffin as it is carried from Babylon, from Fidawsi, Shahnamah, Ishafan 1640: IO Islamic 3682, f. 344

Reaching Alexandria, Egypt’s new capital founded by Alexander, Ptolemy built a magnificent tomb for the king. Although it served as a pilgrimage site for centuries, the tomb had mysteriously disappeared by the 5th century AD, never to be found again ... or had it?!?

We invite you to find out for yourselves by visiting Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Book your tickets now.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 October 2022

A Pardoner’s Tale

Purgatory weighed heavily on the minds of many medieval Christians. Each sin they committed in life meant they would spend longer in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven. For the famous poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Purgatory could involve great suffering, with the prideful crushed under stones and the envious having their eyes sewn up.

A detail from a highly decorated manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing Dante and Virgil before the Gates of Purgatory.

Dante and Virgil at the gates of Purgatory (left); Dante speaking with one of the Proud, who are punished in Purgatory by carrying heavy stones (right): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 84r

A whole industry grew up around minimising one’s time in Purgatory. Monasteries and chantries prayed for the dead, in the hopes that this would speed their journey to Heaven. But another method was to get an indulgence. These could be earned through certain acts, like making a pilgrimage to a particular shrine, or simply buying one from various collectors appointed by the Church. In return, people believed that the indulgence gave certain spiritual benefits, such as absolution from part of a person’s sins, which meant a shorter time in Purgatory. The funds from the sale of indulgences sometimes went towards specific projects, like the construction of a cathedral, or to support particular monasteries, hospitals or religious orders.

One of the manuscripts digitised as part of the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is just such a document. Stowe Ch 607 is an indulgence issued in 1439 to two sisters, Margery and Anna Dicks, which allowed them to choose their own confessor who could offer a full remission of sins. Although hand-written, this indulgence was mass produced, with blank spaces left for the names of whoever bought it. The text states that their money would go towards the conversion of the Greeks (that is, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic Christianity) and the defence of Christendom’s frontiers.

A manuscript leaf with a fragmentary red seal showing the torso of a robed man and a knotwork border.

An indulgence of Pope Eugenius IV, issued by Peter de Monte to Margery and Anna Dicks, 1439: Stowe Ch 607

This particular indulgence was issued in the name of Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) by Peter de Monte (c. 1400–1457), the controversial papal collector for England from 1435 to 1441. At the time of the Reformation, indulgence collectors were often accused of corruption by Protestants like Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was written in response to the collector Johann Tetzel, but such men also came in for criticism in the 1400s. The Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales carried several fake relics, from a collection of pig bones to a pillowcase which he claimed was the Virgin Mary’s veil, selling them to gullible village priests. Dissidents like the Lollards and many church reformers also criticised indulgences and those who sold them. Thomas Gascoigne (1404–1458), who was chancellor of Oxford University in the 1440s, wrote that people could buy indulgences ‘for an offering of ale, and others for a loathsome act of sin; and others had baskets full of letters of indulgence to sell them throughout the country to whoever wanted to buy them.’

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer inside a capital ‘T’, holding an open book in his hands and wearing a grey robe with red hose and shoes.

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer in a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In 1444, Peter de Monte was to be investigated by the archbishop of Canterbury and two other churchmen, following rumours that he had received huge sums of money from these indulgences, but had sent only a small amount to the papal coffers. Later, Gascoigne named de Monte as one of the corrupt sellers of indulgences, calling him a ‘very arrogant Lombard’ (he was actually Venetian). Gascoigne alleged that some people had received indulgences from de Monte in return for ‘false carnal pleasure’, and he claimed that when de Monte lost a game of football, he would give the winner a sealed indulgence instead of money.

A letter from Peter de Monte to William Buggy, vicar of Soham, Cambridgeshire, bound into The Book of Margery Kempe.

A letter from Peter de Monte in the Book of Margery Kempe: Add MS 61823, f. vii recto

We know little about Margery and Anna, not even the amount they paid for their indulgence (which would have been based on their wealth and status). A partial indulgence, that remitted only certain sins, could easily cost a skilled tradesman a week's salary. The type purchased by Margery and Anna (known as a plenary indulgence) would have cost considerably more. We can only assume that they believed in its effectiveness of shortening the time they would spend in Purgatory. As this indulgence was issued in support of the Crusades, and in unifying the Latin and Greek churches, the sisters may have held an interest in supporting the defence and expansion of Latin Christendom, a cause that was widespread in late medieval England.

Although Peter de Monte was investigated by the papacy, he seems to have escaped punishment for his corrupt activities. He was nominated bishop of Brescia, in northern Italy, in 1442, taking up his post in 1445. He withdrew from secular politics following the death of Eugenius IV in 1447, focusing on his bishopric until he died in 1457.

The British Library's Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project is in full swing. We are publishing regular updates about the project's progress, and about the manuscripts, rolls and charters that we are digitising, and that will be shared online with you over the coming months. See this blogpost for our most recent report.


Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 October 2022

Panizzi Lectures – Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought

The British Library is delighted to announce the 2022 Panizzi Lecture series which will be given by Jeffrey Hamburger on Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought.

Diagrams constitute an omnipresent feature of medieval art and thought. From Antiquity onwards, the forms and procedures of geometric reasoning held a privileged place in the pursuit of truth, the understanding of which remained closely linked to ideals of beauty and perfection.

Drawing on the collections of the British Library, whose holdings provide virtually comprehensive coverage of all ramifications of the diagrammatic tradition, this series of lectures examines the practical, theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of medieval diagrams as matrices of meaning and patterns of thought informing diverse areas of medieval culture.

The lectures will be held in person at the British Library and also live streamed, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller.

Lecture 1 : 24th October. Maps of the Mind: Diagrams Medieval and Modern.

Lecture 2: 27th October. The Codex in the Classroom: Practical Dimensions of Medieval Diagrams.

Lecture 3: 1st November. Poetry, Play, Persuasion: The Diagrammatic Imagination in Medieval Art and Thought. Followed by a drinks reception.

Booking is free but required for both in person and online attendance.

Medieval cosmological diagram in the shape of a wheel, with labels in blue and red inks
A cosmological diagram, showing the relationships of elements, directions, temperaments and more, dating from the mid-13th century: Harley MS 3814 A, f. 58v

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01 October 2022

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’: A golden binding by Pierre Legrain

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’ So said the fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) to the interior decorator and designer Pierre Legrain (1889-1929) when he encouraged him to apply his talents to designing modern bindings for Doucet’s modern books. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between a collector and a designer which would produce some of the most striking binding designs of the early 20th century. Following his work for Doucet, Legrain became known as a designer of bookbindings in the early 1920s and worked for a number of different clients. He was widely recognised as the leading designer of French bindings of the early 20th century and produced some of his best and most famous work towards the end of his life.

The cover of a book, made of yellow leather decorated with an art deco design of gold semi-circles and blue and white circles
Gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain on a copy of Colette La vagabonde (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

The final case in the British Library’s Gold exhibition contains a number of bookbindings which are all decorated with gold using various techniques. Among them is the most recent object in the exhibition. It is a binding designed by Pierre Legrain in Paris on an edition of La vagabonde by Colette, printed in 1927. The binding was designed by Legrain at the height of his career in the late 1920s and is a great example of the very effective and skilful use of gold tooling. The book is bound in citron goatskin, Legrain’s favourite covering material, and is decorated with blue goatskin onlays and tooled in gold and silver to an all-over art deco design. It is signed by Legrain on the doublure inside the upper cover and belonged to the book collector Major J. R. (John Roland) Abbey (1894-1969) before it was acquired by the British Library in the 1970s.

Pierre Legrain was a designer rather than a bookbinder, and his designs were transferred to bindings by skilled craftsmen, always to the highest standards, first in their studios, and later, once he had become successful and well-known, in his own studio. His style was revolutionary and a departure from all French bookbinding designs produced in previous centuries. His designs were not centred on each cover as had been the case previously, but he instead used both covers and the spine of a book as a blank canvas for which to create a design going all the way across, looking to contemporary art and design for inspiration. Legrain often made use of a ruler and a divider, and his early designs were often geometrical before he moved to more asymmetrical and complicated designs later on in his career.

Spine of the book, with a yellow leather cover tooled with a design of gold lines and blue and white circles, and with a gold-tooled title 'COLETTE LA VAGABOND'
Spine of the gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

Legrain was of the opinion that a binding should prepare the reader for the book it encloses. The designs he produced and the way he looked at a binding as a work of art set the tone for how French – and other European – bookbinding design was to develop in the first half of the 20th century.

You can visit Gold in the British Library until 2 October 2022. If you would like a taster of the exhibition or are unable to visit in person, you can watch the virtual exhibition opening on the British Library Player, or purchase the accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World from the British Library shop. 

Karen Limper-Herz

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.