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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21 September 2020
Camels are an iconic part of the Egyptian landscape. Called the ships of the desert for their endurance and ability to cope with the heat and lack of water, they are still used for transportation and as a tourist attraction in the shadows of the pyramids.
A man riding a camel in a medieval bestiary (England, possibly Rochester, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 38v (detail)
But has this always been the case? Despite their archaeologically documented presence in North Africa for thousands of years, camels are hardly ever named in Egyptian documents of the Pharaonic period. They are first mentioned as animals used to transport goods and people in much later Greek documents.
One of the first sources to mention how camels were used is a papyrus in the British Library's collection, dating from around 2,280 years ago. This fragmentary piece comes from a Greek account-book, recording the costs of a private businessman who was renting out his camels. Although the papyrus is damaged, it shows that this man may have had at least 60 camels in his possession, and that he regularly rented them to local farmers, whose names are recorded in the document. Two of them, Onnophris and Eudemos, may have been regular customers as their names were recorded on consecutive days, hiring 5, 6 or as many as 10–12 camels at a time.
Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent (Egypt, Philadelphia, meris of Herakleides, 263–229BC): Papyrus 2692 (detail)
Unfortunately, the text does not record what these people used the camels for, but it is interesting to note that these early documents tend to mention the existence of camel agents renting out the animals, rather than camels owned by individuals. Could this be a sign that they were too expensive to own and cheaper to rent?
The camel in a medieval bestiary (England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 24r (detail)
Whatever the truth, this situation seems to have changed significantly within a couple of centuries. From the first and second centuries AD — about 1,800–1,900 years ago — there are far more papyri mentioning camels. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they were kept and used.
Apart from agents having more camels for rent, we find individuals keeping one or two of them for their own use. In a report to the local police from AD 175, the priests of a temple complained that out of their four camels, a nice white female had been stolen, and they asked the authorities to help them get it back.
Fragment of a petition to the local authorities reporting the theft of a white female camel (Pelusion, Egypt, c. AD 175): Papyrus 363
In a letter from about 20 years later, we learn that the prefect of a province ordered two camels for his private use, which were then delivered to him.
A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect (Egypt, 3rd century AD): Papyrus 479
Besides these more institutional users, we find an increasing number of contracts attesting that other individuals had started to buy camels. It appears from these documents that camels were around 8 times more expensive than donkeys or mules. Female camels were especially valuable and were often sold with their foals for very high prices. For example, a contract from AD 177 records that a white female camel and two foals were sold for 900 drachmas, while at the same time one could buy a donkey for about 120–150 drachmas.
The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals for at least 900 drachmas (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, October AD 177/178/179): Papyrus 1100
Camels were relatively expensive. This must explain why some documents attest that people often purchased only a part of a camel. A contract from 1,850 years ago records that a woman with her three daughters bought one third of two camels from her own son for 400 drachmas. The document shows not only that the whole camel would have been very expensive (about 600 drachmas) but also how people shared camels between them.
Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels for a sum of 400 drachmas (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 11 October AD 166): Papyrus 333
It was not only the purchase price of the animal that made it so expensive. Once you owned a camel, you had to register it with the local authorities and pay tax for it, which was higher than the amount charged for other animals. This may explain why in AD 163 Harpagathes was so quick to report to the council that his two camels, registered the previous year, had been requisitioned by the governor to serve in his caravan, so Harpagathes should not pay taxes for them.
Declaration of camels (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt. 29 January, AD 163): Papyrus 328
Apart from taxes, camels incurred other customs duties. Once they entered a city or a specific area, they had to pay a toll at the gates, which was higher than that issued to donkeys. As the surviving receipts attest, camels received a special permit on these occasions with a seal attached to the document.
A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues by Abous for exporting vetch on a camel, bearing a seal (Philopator alias Theogenous, meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 386C
The ancient documents preserved among the Greek papyri at the British Library may look dull at first sight, but they record precious information. They provide a fascinating picture about the increasing use of camels in Egypt over a period of some four to five centuries, as well as giving us an insight into the everyday life of the people who owned or rented them.
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18 May 2020
Early in the 1400s, Ulrich von Pottenstein (c. 1360–1417), a clerk and chaplain to Duke Albert IV of Austria, translated into German a collection of Latin fables. Known in their expanded version as Das Buch der natürlichen Weisheit ('The Book of Natural Wisdom'), these fables describe the interactions between animals, humans, plants and the natural elements in order to teach moral lessons to their readers. One of the finest illustrated copies of this work, found in Egerton MS 1121, has recently been digitised. This manuscript, containing more than 70 fables, can teach us much about wisdom, beginning with:
(1) Listen to your sense of reason.
When the animals gather to choose the wisest, they divide into two factions. The land animals nominate the Fox and the birds elect the Raven. But the Monkey intervenes, explaining that they have chosen not with reason but with carelessness and poor judgement. They have allowed themselves to be misled, mistaking the cunning of the Fox and Raven for wisdom.
The Fox and Raven are chosen as the wisest animals: Egerton MS 1121, f. 4v
(2) Question things that appear to be certain.
The Fox plays dead in order to catch the Raven, who is sitting in a tree. The scavenging bird comes closer but, knowing the Fox’s cunning, inspects the ‘carcass’ from a safe distance. When the Raven notices that the Fox’s heart is beating, he drops a stone on his head and calls him out as a deceiver. The Fox, in turn, drops his charade.
The Fox and the Raven: Egerton MS 1121, f. 7v
(3) Choose your company carefully.
The Fox has remorse for his sins and decides to go on a pilgrimage. En route, the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine and Peacock try to join him, but the Fox considers them imprudent and shakes them off. Instead, he chooses wiser animals as his fellow pilgrims: the Ant, Tracking Dog, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey and (multi-coloured) Panther. The Fox explains that, if you keep company with the wise and holy, you will become wise and holy as well.
The Pilgrim Fox chooses his company: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r
(4) Listen to good advice.
The Monkey decides to follow a sailor into the mast of a ship. The Raven warns against it, but the Monkey ignores the advice, falls down and hurts himself. He then sits on a king's throne, ignoring the warning of the Fox. Only when he is thrown off and bitten by dogs does he realise that he should listen to sound advice.
The Monkey ignores the advice of the Raven and the Fox: Egerton MS 1121, f. 48v
(5) Don’t put yourself above others.
A Cloud, newly born from the Earth, leaps high up into the air. Her mother, Earth, implores her to return. But the Cloud answers that she wants to raise herself above all the things in the natural world. The Earth then teaches her that those who exalt themselves will fall deep. Even the Sun, which raises itself high into the sky, goes down. It is better to be humble. As a reminder of this, Nature has placed the human heart and feet, that keep the entire body going, below the head. The Cloud is persuaded and lets herself fall back to Earth.
The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth: Egerton MS 1121, f. 58v
(6) Use your powers wisely.
A fish with razor-sharp teeth tells the Swordfish that he would like to have a sword as well, in order to rob others. The Swordfish replies that it would be best if the other fish doesn’t have a sword or even teeth: corrupted hearts always take the opportunity to use the good things they have for evil purposes, turning their own luck into unhappiness.
The ‘Toothfish’ and the Swordfish: Egerton MS 1121, f. 67r
(7) Greed leads to more loss than gain.
Having devoured yet another prey, the gluttonous Crocodile lies sleeping with its jaws open. The bird ‘Scrofilus’ seizes its opportunity, crawls inside the Crocodile’s mouth, and mortally wounds him from the inside. The Crocodile wakes up and asks why the bird has injured him. Scrofilus explains that those who always desire more always lose more than they gain. Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, always wanted to possess more lands; he was never satisfied and became poor in heart as a result.
Scrofilus mortally wounds the sleeping Crocodile: Egerton MS 1121, f. 97v
(8) Wealth always comes with a price.
The Monkey wants to grow a long tail like that of the Fox. But he then meets the Elephant who has removed his tusks to avoid being used in battle; the Swallow whose stomach has been cut open for the precious ‘swallow stone’ (Chelidonius); the Beaver who has removed his testicles to escape hunters looking for his castoreum; and the Peacock whose shiny tail has been cut off. The Monkey realises that wealth always comes with suffering and forgets about the tail.
The Monkey with the Fox and the tuskless Elephant: Egerton MS 1121, f. 102r
(9) Good things take time.
The Gourd is proud to have reached the same height as the 100-year-old Palm within only a few summer days. The plant thanks Nature for allowing him to grow so quickly. But the Palm hears the Gourd’s boast and replies that what grows quickly will also wither quickly. The Palm gives the example of the quick-growing fish ‘Effimer’ (Ephemeral) that only lives for one day, and the slow-growing elephant that lives for 300 years.
The Palm Tree and the Gourd: Egerton MS 1121, f. 121v
(10) Seek treasure inside yourself.
A Youth wants to get rich by visiting the ‘Golden Mountains’ in India. Upon reaching the emerald-covered mountains of pure gold, an Old Man warns him that all visitors are killed by griffins, fabulous creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Youth is downcast but the Old Man explains that he already carries the greatest treasure inside his own heart. If he listens to his heart — and not greed — he will only seek pure goodness and not gold. Because gold only leads to vice, the peaceful Brahmani (‘Bragmani’) dispose of their gold in deep lakes and Nature hides it from mankind deep inside the Earth. The Youth thanks the Old Man for helping him find true treasure and no longer desires material wealth.
The Old Man warns the Youth about griffins in the Golden Mountains: Egerton MS 1121, f. 114v
Follow your voice of reason, avoid bad company and tricksters, listen to good advice, stay humble, live a measured life, take time to grow, and look inside your own heart. That’s the path to Natural Wisdom.
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27 February 2020
We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?
Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)
This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.
A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r
Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r
Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)
We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.
Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f. 53r
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)
This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.
Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f. 21r
The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)
This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.
The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v
The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)
The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.
The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v
Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)
This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar.
Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r
The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)
This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.
The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v
Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)
This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.
The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r
You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.
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21 January 2020
We invite you to explore some of the wildlife that can be found in our heraldic manuscripts. Medieval and early modern coats of arms — visual designs symbolising the heritage and achievements of individuals and families — are teeming with animal life. These animals are depicted according to heraldic conventions, but sometimes they also display fabulous features originating from medieval illustrated ‘books of beasts’, known as bestiaries.
It can sometimes be difficult to understand what these borrowings from the bestiary tradition represent. Luckily, we have a guide book at our disposal, namely the 15th-century Middle Scots Deidis of Armorie (found in Harley MS 6149). This ‘heraldic bestiary’ explains what the behaviours and appearances of animals on coats of arms indicate about the origins of specific families. The manuscript containing the Deidis of Armorie has recently been digitised and can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site. In this blogpost we'll study some extraordinary heraldic animals up close.
The Deidis of Armorie (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, ff. 16v–17r
We start with the heraldic ostrich, happily chomping on its staple food: horseshoes and keys. This imagery originates from the bestiary tradition, which supposed that the animal had remarkable digestive abilities, enabling it to consume and process iron. What does the ostrich's presence on a coat of arms mean? According to the Deidis of Armorie, it signified that the first bearer of these arms ate hard things — in other words, they were as tough as nails — and that they had a defiant nature (‘eite hard thingis and [wes] diffailland of natur’).
The ostrich as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 4926, f. 8v
Tigers are often depicted on coats of arms gazing into mirrors. According to bestiaries, this imagery illustrated the method by which robbers could steal a tigress’s cub. The cub-nappers would be pursued by the tigress, but could deceive her by dropping a mirror on the ground. The tigress would stop to look into the mirror, mistake her own reflection for her stolen cub, and start nursing it, allowing the thieves to get away. The Deidis of Armorie claims that those who first bore the tiger on their coats of arms were feigning, cunning and deceitful (‘dissimilit, wyly, and double in his dedis’).
The tiger on a coat of arms (England, 4th quarter of the 16th century-1st quarter of the 17th century): Harley MS 6106, f. 68v
The heraldic elephant typically sported a tower or castle on its back. This imagery corresponds with the bestiary tale that male elephants were used in battle, and that men built castles filled with armed soldiers upon them. The Deidis of Armorie interprets a coat of arms inhabited by such an elephant as a sign that its first bearer was large and virtuous, and carried great burdens during their life (‘gret of body and of vertu, berand gret birdingis’).
The elephant on a coat of arms (England, c. 1632): Harley MS 6060, f. 109r
The heraldic pelican is found sitting on its nest while feeding its young with its own blood. Bestiaries told that the father pelican killed his young when they struck him with their wings, and that the mother subsequently revived them with her blood. The Deidis of Armorie explains that whoever first adopted a pelican on his coat of arms took vengeance on his neighbours when they harassed him, but that they were subsequently restored through him as well (‘[þai] wald have vengeance of his nixt nychtpuris quhen þai did oppressioun [bot] nychtburis scalit his blud for till heill þaim of his vengeance’).
The pelican on a coat of arms (England, 16th century): Harley MS 709, f. 22r
The heraldic panther is another wonderful sight. In line with the bestiary descriptions, coats of arms present it as a friendly animal with multi-coloured spots, issuing ‘flames’ out of its mouth and ears. The latter represent the sweet-smelling belch that the animal was wont to issue after a meal. Although the panther is not part of the Deidis of Armorie, Rodney Dennys (The Heraldic Imagination (Fakenham: Cox & Wyman, 1975), pp. 143–44) has pointed out that heraldic manuscripts sometimes interpret the animal’s multi-coloured spots as symbols for the many virtues of the arms’ bearer.
The panther as a heraldic supporter (England, c. 1600-1609): Harley MS 6156, f. 24r
We end our tour with the heraldic salamander. Bestiaries claimed that the salamander was a fire-resistant animal, and so we find it basking in flames of fire on coats of arms. The salamander is not covered by the Deidis of Armorie , but Dennys suggested that its presence on a coat of arms signified that its first bearer had survived great danger. James Douglas (1426–1488), 9th Earl of Douglas and 3rd Earl of Avondale, was among the first to display the animal on his coat of arms, perhaps alluding to his surviving a failed insurrection against King James II of Scotland, and subsequently escaping to England.
The salamander as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 5818, f. 13v
If you would you like to see more heraldic animals, and to explore the symbolism behind them, we would encourage you to look out the Deidis of Armorie on Digitised Manuscripts.
The text quoted here can be found in Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, I, The Scottish Text Society, Fourth Series, 22 (Edinburgh: The Scottish Text Society, 1994).
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27 December 2019
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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19 December 2019
The British Library's new family-friendly exhibition, Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature's Young Rebels, features some of the most lovable young hell-raisers in fiction. They include Matilda, Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and a host of animal characters, from Zog the Dragon to the beast in Billy and the Beast.
Literary rebels and mischief makers have been around for a very long time and one of the best known is an animal — Renard the Fox. He is a cunning prankster who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his own tricks.
Renard persuades the crow to sing and drop the cheese he is holding, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 33r
The Renard stories are part of a long tradition of animal fables across Indo-European cultures and languages, from Afghanistan to Zaragoza. Other famous examples include the Sanskrit Panchatantra (around AD 300) and the classical Aesop’s Fables. The Roman de Renart, a French cycle of poems, became so popular that the original word for fox, ‘goupil’, was replaced by ‘renart’ in Middle French (it derives from the German ‘Raginhard’, meaning brave). An expression of the comical and satirical spirit of the time, the Roman de Renart parodies aspects of courtly literature, aristocratic refinement and religious hypocrisy. One of the British Library's illuminated copies, containing 14 of the tales and 13 colour miniatures, has recently been digitised and is now available online.
Chanticleer the cockerel, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 13r
In one of the most popular medieval tales, Renard manages to sneak into a chicken enclosure. The hens see him and scatter, but Chanticleer the cockerel, whose bravado exceeds his common sense, ignores the threat. Renard immediately sets about flattering him, calling him ‘Master Chanticleer’ and ‘cousin’, and persuading him to demonstrate his beautiful voice. Stretching his neck, both eyes closed, Chanticleer crows with all his might, a perfect opportunity for Renard to seize him by the throat and run off. However, the wily fox is caught out when Chanticleer encourages him to shout insults at the farmer giving chase. He opens his mouth and the cockerel escapes. Renard later plays a similar trick on the crow. The story of Chanticleer was later adapted by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales as the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.
Scenes of foxes and cockerels are sometimes found in the margins of religious and scholarly manuscripts, like this volume of scholastic texts produced in a Paris workshop.
A fox with a cockerel in his mouth, in the upper margin: Burney MS 275, f. 336r
In the lower margin of a Psalter, a cockerel sings from a book on a music stand, watched closely by a fox. This mirrors the religious scene above it, showing three monks singing at a lectern.
‘Let us sing to the Lord a new song’, Psalm 95 in the 'Oscott Psalter': Add MS 50000, f. 146v
In another famous episode, Renard the Fox is present at the court of King Noble, the Lion, and is accused of serious crimes against his fellow animals. He is sentenced to be hanged. But Noble falls seriously ill and Renard sets out to try to redeem himself by finding a cure. He steals a bag of herbal remedies from a sleeping pedlar and, having performed an examination on the king, promises to heal him provided he is given the skin of a wolf, the antlers of a stag and the fur of a cat. The outcome is that Noble is cured, Renart is restored to favour, Isengrin the wolf is skinned, Brichemer the stag is de-horned and Tibert the cat is lucky to escape. This story is illustrated in the margins of a book of canon law known as the Smithfield Decretals, a medieval masterpiece decorated with over 600 illustrations on subjects varying from saints’ Lives to romances.
(1) A fox with a staff and pouch feels the pulse of a lion; (2) a wolf is skinned by two foxes; (3) above, a fox with a pilgrim bag and staff; below, a smiling fox sets off, leaving slaughtered creatures behind him (right); the fox bows to a lion, offering him a dead goose and money bag (centre), in the ‘Smithfield Decretals’: Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 54r, 56v, 55r
Likewise, in Spiegel der Weisheit, a collection assembled in German for Albrecht IV, Duke of Austria (1395–1404), there is a story of a fox going on a pilgrimage, illustrated in this manuscript from Salzburg.
A fox, setting off on a pilgrimage, refusing the companionship of the watch-dog, lion, peacock and others, and instead choosing the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, young hound, and the ant, Spiegel der Weisheit: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r
Our free Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition abounds with tales of young literary rebels, following in the tradition of Renard the Fox. It is on at the British Library until 1 March 2020, and is well worth a visit this holiday season.
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18 August 2019
As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').
Function and origins
We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.
The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'
Real and imagined
Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.
Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.
We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.
Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).
Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:
Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century
Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century
Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236
Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century
Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century
Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230
Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century
Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century
You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.
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