Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

01 January 2020

New year, new manuscripts

Long-term readers of this Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts (our last list was published in June 2019). As a special treat to celebrate the New Year, today we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures.

The aftermath of a jousting scene in which the knight Jean de Saintré has knocked his opponent from his horse. Lords and ladies watch the joust from separate pavilions.
Jean de Saintré beats his opponent Enguerrand in a joust, from an illustrated copy of Antoine de La Sale’s French romance Le Petit Jean de Saintré, 4th quarter of the 15th century, Paris: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 40r 

There are now over 2900 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on our Digitised Manuscripts website and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019. This is also available as an Excel spreadsheet: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-dec-2019 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

An illustration of a lion
The zodiac sign Leo (Lion) depicted in an illustrated astrological treatise, Georgius Fendulus, Liber astrologiae (Book of astrology), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, France or Southern Netherlands: Sloane MS 3983, f. 40r

The Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever over the last 6 months, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since June 2019. To admire our most recent additions to the Digitised Manuscripts site, take a look at this list of manuscripts published since June 2019. PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019. Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jun_2019_dec_2019.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
Illustrations of the punishments of Hell (left) and the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (right), from a 15th-century copy of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), England, S. E. (London): Harley MS 2838, f. 44r

You can find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts in this previous blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

An illustration of the Annunciation, showing the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, with a cat and a dog playing in the centre of the image and borders filled with birds, plants, and the figures of infants.
An illustration of the Annunciation at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin Mary, early 15th-century Book of Hours, France: Add MS 29433, f. 20r


We hope you have a very Happy New Year and enjoy exploring Digitised Manuscripts!

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine, monastic libraries and more.

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27 December 2019

Knight v griffin

You may have heard about the medieval knight’s rivalry with the snail, which we featured in this famous blogpost. But knights also had a more fearsome natural adversary, a fabulous creature from Ethiopia or India, with the body of a lion and the wings, head and (occasionally) talons of an eagle. That beast was none other than the griffin.

Images and descriptions of knights fighting griffins abound in medieval art and literature. They range from the woodcarvings on the benches of Norwich Cathedral and St Botolph’s Church at Boston (Lincolnshire) to the margins of medieval manuscripts, such as this Psalter (Add MS 24686), originally intended as a wedding gift for Prince Alphonso (d. 1284), son of King Edward I.

A knight in combat with a griffin

A knight spearing a griffin, in the Alphonso Psalter (England, late 13th century to early 14th century): Add MS 24686, f. 18r

The notion of knights and griffins in combat was influenced by the accounts found in bestiaries and natural encyclopedias. In the English translation of De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’) by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Harley MS 614, f. 104v), it was claimed that the griffin ‘greven boþe hors and man’ (‘harms both horses and men’). Another account is found in a fictional travel memoir attributed to Sir John Mandeville, describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. This evokes the image of the creature carrying a knight on horseback back to its nest:

‘þe gryffoun hath a body gretter þan viij lyonys and gretter and strangere þan C. Eglys for he wyl bere to hys nest flyande a gret hors and a man on hym’

(‘The griffin has a body that is larger than eight lions and larger and stronger than a hundred eagles, since he will carry to his nest a large horse with a man on top of it.’)

A griffin carrying a horse to its nest

A griffin carrying a knight and horse to its nest (eastern England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 54v

In the Roman d’Alexandre, a 12th-century romance describing Alexander the Great’s legendary exploration and conquest of the world, it was recounted that, after leaving the legendary country of ‘Tradiaque’, Alexander lost many men in a battle with griffins. Eventually, his archers managed to shoot them out of the air. The artist who decorated one manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre in the late 13th-century (Harley MS 4979) depicted a griffin lifting a knight in full armour into the air, thereby demonstrating its great strength.

Alexander the Great stabbing a griffin with his sword

Alexander the Great slaying a griffin (northern France or southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 A V, f. 67v

A very early representation of a knight fighting a griffin features on a 12th-century wax seal attached to a charter (Harley Charter 44 E 19) in which William Basset, abbot of St Benet of Hulme (1127-1134), Norfolk, granted the lease of the manor of Heigham in Norwich to Richard Basset (I) of Weldon. The seal of Richard Basset features a knight in full chain armour with a Norman helmet and shield, and striking with his sword a griffin holding a naked man in its jaws.

The original Basset seal

Richard Basset’s seal (England, 1127–1134): Harley Charter 44 E 19

This seal once belonged to Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650), an antiquary whose collection formed the cornerstone of the Harleian library. In his autobiography, D’Ewes mentioned viewing it on 4 August 1632, and considering it ‘the oldest [seal] that I ever saw’ (J. Halliwell-Phillipps, The Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Simonds D'Ewes (1845), II, p. 76). Seeing its fragile state, he had it ‘three times tricked out [i.e. outlined] by a most skilful hand, and [I] had two of those copies or draughts very exactly depicted or coloured’.

After acquiring the seal, D’Ewes referred to it as ‘the most precious monument in my library’. Great was his dismay, therefore, when he discovered that a portion containing the griffin's wings and the top of the tail had broken off in 1636. Luckily, he found consolation in the colour copies he had made of it:  

‘[M]y vexation and trouble would have been much the greater had I not preserved the true form and colour of the same seal in those exact draughts I had caused to be identically delineated and coloured from it.’

So far, scholars have known of only one early modern hand-drawn copy of the seal — when it was still more or less intact — made by Sir William Dugdale (1605–1686), antiquary and herald, for Sir Christopher Hatton’s Book of Seals, begun in 1640. We have now discovered an older and possibly more accurate copy while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts. This copy of the seal features in Harley MS 6152, at the end of several hand-drawn reproductions of charters related to the Basset family. According to Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), Keeper of the Harley collection, the reproductions were made by or at the instruction of Sir Simonds D’Ewes. Next to the copy, someone has added a note in which they testify to its accuracy by comparing it with the original seal. As the note is dated to 15 September 1632, it was made shortly after D’Ewes viewed the seal. All of this suggests that the version in Harley MS 6152 is one of the two colour copies that D’Ewes referred to in his autobiography.

Drawing of the Basset seal

A copy of Richard Basset’s seal (England, before or in 1632): Harley MS 6152, f. 12r

The seal’s symbolic meaning is unknown, but the image of a fabulous creature — such as the dragon or wyvern — devouring a naked man became more common on coats of arms designed during the age of heraldry, from the middle of the 12th century. The knight fighting the griffin may refer to the Basset family’s military valour or expeditions in faraway countries — where griffins were thought to live — during the Crusades. At the very least, we can deduce that medieval artists and heralds were drawing upon centuries-old precedents whenever they illustrated knights and griffins in combat.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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25 December 2019

Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle

It is midnight on 24th December in the great city of Paris, sometime in the last quarter of the 13th century. Paris is the most populous city in Europe with around 200,000 residents, and it is the centre of learning, government and commerce in France. Tonight all is quiet in the city's many ports, markets, workshops, lecture halls and council chambers, but the sound of chanting is rising from the churches, filling the cold night with warm music. Within the walls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the clergy of the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle are celebrating the feast of the Nativity from a beautiful new book.

A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. In the lower half of the left column is a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r

The book is a Gospel Lectionary, a collection of the Gospel passages to be read during the mass throughout the year. They are arranged in calendar order, beginning with the season of Advent. The Gospel readings for each day of the year were established in the early Middle Ages and, with a few local variations, were traditional throughout the churches of Western Europe. Like the entire service, the readings are all in Latin.

At Christmas, three masses are performed throughout the day. The reading for Midnight Mass is Luke 2:1-14, which tells how Joseph and Mary travelled to the city of Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger. Meanwhile, shepherds watching their flocks were visited by an angel, who announced to them the birth of Christ and explained where to find him.

As the deacon reads the words, he can see the events delicately illustrated in the decorated letter that opens the reading. Almost every one of the readings in this luxurious lectionary begins with an illustrated letter, 262 in total. The letters, known as ladder initials, are slender and towering, divided into horizonal tiers and topped with gothic architectural features, much like the magnificent building for which the manuscript was made.

A close-up of the decorated initial from the last picture. It contains a Nativity scene in the upper half and the annunciation to the shepherds in the lower half.
Decorated initial for the reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r (detail)

The upper level of the letter shows the Nativity scene—Mary reclining in bed, Joseph sitting behind, the baby Jesus lying in a high altar-like manger being nuzzled by the ox and the ass. The lower level shows the surprised shepherds and equally surprised sheepdog encountering the angel, who points urgently up to the Nativity above. The top of the initial features alternating Gothic pinnacles and gables, similar to the distinctive exterior of Sainte-Chapelle (below).

The exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent chapel with elaborate Gothic architecture.
Sainte-Chapelle, north facade with alternating pinnacles and gables. (François Deneux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The right column contains a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v

After Midnight Mass, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle go to bed, their heads filled with the joyful words and bright images. Later, the community returns to the church for the second service of the day, the Dawn Mass. The reading continues with Luke 2:15-20, in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem, find the Holy Family and glorify God.

A close-up of the initial from the previous image. The upper half shows the Nativity scene and the lower half shows the shepherds praising God.
Decorated initial for the reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v (detail)

The decorated letter shows the Nativity in the upper scene, almost but not quite the same as before. Mary has now crossed her arms, and with her wistful expression she seems to illustrate the line of Luke 2:14, 'Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart'. She is also now covered by a blue quilt with a red lining, perhaps Joseph's cloak from the previous scene. On the lower level, the shepherds are praising God, two of them reverently raising their arms and one clutching his hands to his heart. Their arrival is signified by the gothic architectural structure under which they now stand. With its pointed arch containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion, the structure closely resembles a design that is repeated along the lower walls of Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel (below).

An interior wall of Sainte-Chapelle decorated with a row of pointed arches.
Sainte-Chapelle, upper chapel, dado of pointed arches each containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion (Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The entire height of the right column is filled with a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The third and most important mass of Christmas, distinguished with the largest and most elaborate decorated initial in the lectionary, was celebrated during the day. The reading is John 1:1-14, 'In the beginning was the Word', which describes how the Word of God created the world and then became flesh in the person of Christ.

In the decorated initial, the six days of Creation, the seventh day of divine rest and the Crucifixion are represented inside barbed quatrefoils. The scenes emphasise the message of the Gospel reading, adding the solemn reminder that Christ's human birth meant that he could die a human death, and so achieve salvation for humanity. The slender column of quatrefoil medallions is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle's soaring windows with their panels of geometric glasswork (below).

Interior view of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent gothic chapel with very high windows featuring geometric stained glass.
Sainte-Chapelle, interior facing east with soaring windows (Pierre Poschadel / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As the service comes to an end, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle gaze around the chapel. The winter sunshine is streaming through the stained-glass windows and the lofty vaults are pointing the way to heaven. Those within sight of the book can see sacred history minutely represented inside letters that echo the architecture of the building. For a moment, the events of the Christmas story seem be to present within the gothic splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Everyone is filled with wonder as they leave the chapel and head to their Christmas feasts.

A detail of the previous decorated initial, showing a barbed quatrefoil medallion containing a Crucifixion scene.
The Crucifixion in the decorated initial for the reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The Sainte-Chapelle Gospel lectionary is currently on view as part of the Sacred Texts display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, open on the readings for the dawn and daytime masses on Christmas Day. Visit us to see this festive treat in person (check our seasonal opening hours).

Merry Christmas from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Section of the British Library!

Eleanor Jackson

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