25 October 2023
Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.
The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.
A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r
You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:
Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).
Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.
We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.
The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r
In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).
A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4
Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).
The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r
Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v
Troilus and Criseyde
Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.
The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r
The Legend of Good Women
The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.
Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).
The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r
In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.
The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v
Anelida and Arcite
Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.
A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r
Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:
To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.
Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r
Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.
The Treatise on the Astrolabe
While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.
An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1
In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy.
A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622
Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.
The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r
Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.
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07 April 2023
This Good Friday, we have gathered a selection of illustrations of the Crucifixion from some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in our collections, dating from as early as the 11th century up to the end of the Middle Ages.
The Sherborne Missal
The Sherborne Missal is one of the masterpieces of English book production in the 15th century, a gigantic volume with nearly every page decorated with elaborate borders and historiated initials in colours and gold. The manuscript is a service book containing all the texts required for the celebration of Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year, made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, between approximately 1399 and 1407. The single full-page illustration in the manuscript is a depiction of the Crucifixion that introduces the Canon of the Mass. Christ is shown on the Cross, flanked by the two thieves, with the Virgin Mary fainting at its foot. Beside her appear the figures of St John and Mary Magdalene, while a crowd of mounted onlookers in contemporary dress gather behind the three crosses. The illustration is accompanied by portraits of the Four Evangelists writing in the corners of the frame, and a series of roundels containing depictions of related episodes from the Old Testament.
Read our previous blogpost on the digitisation of the Sherborne Missal here!
The Sherborne Missal, c. 1399-1407: Add MS 74236, p. 380
The De Brailes Hours
Depictions of the Crucifixion commonly feature within Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular among lay people during the Middle Ages, allowing them to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion throughout the day. Named after its designer and painter William de Brailes (active c. 1230–c. 1260), this small, portable volume (measuring only 150 x 125 mm) is the earliest known surviving English Book of Hours, made in Oxford around 1240. Its Crucifixion scene appears at the beginning of the section called None, referring to the ‘Ninth Hour’ of the day, and is divided into three sections, showing Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, Christ before the Virgin Mary and St John, and Longinus piercing Christ’s side.
Book of Hours (‘The De Brailes Hours’), c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 47v
The Holkham Bible Picture Book
The Holkham Bible Picture Book is a unique copy of the Bible that was made in London in the early 14th century. Rather than focusing on the Scriptural text, this manuscript is composed principally of over 230 vivid illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with accompanying captions of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French. The Passion sequence is depicted over a series of folios towards the end of the manuscript. On this opening, Christ is nailed to the Cross and his garments divided among the Roman soldiers, while the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is shown writing the sign that will be displayed above Christ’s head. The Crucifixion is shown on the opposing page. Scrolls issue from the mouths of figures within the scene, indicating portions of speech. At the foot of the Cross, a cluster of bones and skulls have been painted, reflecting the name Golgotha (literally ‘Skull’ in Aramaic), the site of the Crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, ff. 31v–32r
The Biblia Pauperum
Another unique type of illuminated picture Bible is this Biblia Pauperum (or Bible of the Poor), made in the Northern Netherlands around the turn of the 15th century. It features a series of images of the life of Christ painted in colours and gold, accompanied by images of episodes from the Old Testament that were thought to prefigure it. Here, for example, the Crucifixion appears in the centre of the page, with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, from the Book of Genesis, on the left, and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on the right, from the Book of Exodus.
Biblia Pauperum, c. 1405: Kings MS 5, f. 17r
The Tiberius Psalter
The Crucifixion often appeared as part of prefatory cycles of images at the beginnings of Psalters (Book of Psalms). The Tiberius Psalter is one of the earliest surviving English examples, made in Winchester in the 3rd quarter of the 11th century. Its sequence of drawings, outlined in blue, red and green, depicts episodes from the lives of David and Christ, with an especial focus on the Passion. In the Tiberius Psalter’s depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ is shown on the Cross, with the Roman soldier Longinus piercing his side with a spear, and another holding to his mouth a sponge soaked in vinegar.
The Tiberius Psalter, 3rd quarter of the 11th century–2nd half of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 13r
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll
The medieval churches of Southern Italy celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from rolls designed to be used once a year for this specific ritual. The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words (‘Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum’), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter vigil. The British Library’s Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075–1080 and features numerous illustrations, including a depiction of the Crucifixion that appears at the centre of the sixth membrane. Notably, the image is displayed upside-down upon the roll. This is because the deacon given the responsibility of reading the prayer would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the church’s ambo (a raised platform for liturgical readings) and display the images to the congregation the right way up. You can read our previous blogpost on this incredible item and the special way it was used in the performance of the Exultet.
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, c. 1075–1080: Add MS 30337, membrane 6
We wish our readers a peaceful and Happy Easter!
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14 August 2022
Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.
The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them.
While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.
Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen.
The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.
Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals
At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.
Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering.
The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).
With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.
The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
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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.
20 February 2022
The earliest surviving detailed map of Scotland is now on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme. The map was compiled by John Hardyng, who was born in 1377 or 1378, probably in Northumberland, and lived most of his life during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He joined the household of Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) when he was 12 years old, and fought for the Percys in Anglo-Scottish border battles. He also served in France during the reign of Henry V, who sent him on a spying mission to Scotland in 1418. Hardyng is best known for his verse Chronicle of the history of Britain, in which he set out his fervent belief in the right of English kings to rule over Scotland. He was so determined to prove his case that he forged a series of documents purporting to provide corroborating historical evidence.
John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r
In 1457, Hardyng presented the first version of his Chronicle to King Henry VI of England, as part of his failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland. The Chronicle is accompanied by this colourful map, spread across two pages, which depicts a very rectangular Scotland with west at the top. Hardyng doubtless drew on his earlier years of reconnaissance in Scotland in compiling his map. It includes much more topographical information and many more towns right across Scotland than in earlier surviving maps. The castles and walls of the towns are remarkably varied, while at Glasgow and Dunfermline the churches are drawn instead. The rivers are very clearly marked, with the River Forth, bridged at Stirling, running from top to bottom, and almost cutting the kingdom in two.
Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v
The level of detail, which Hardyng hoped would help an invading army, is strikingly different from earlier maps of Scotland. There is very little detail relating to Scotland in the small map of the world that was copied in 11th-century England and preserved in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. East is at the top in this map, and the prominent islands to the north (on the left) are labelled ‘Orkney islands’ in Latin.
Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v
Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced several maps of Britain from his monastery at St Albans in Hertfordshire. In this map, included in his Abbreviatio Chronicorum, Scotland is shown in two parts, joined by a bridge at Stirling. Rivers are prominent and many places are labelled, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Dundee, Arbroath and Aberdeen, as well as Galloway, Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.
Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v
In the mid-1560s, just over a century after John Hardyng compiled his map, the antiquary Laurence Nowell was producing new maps of Scotland. Like Hardyng, Nowell put west at the top in this small map, but he included far more detailed information, making this the most accurate map of Scotland at that time. It has recently been on display at the British Library in the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r
John Hardyng’s map is on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 20 February until 3 July 2022. The museum is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can find out more about Hardyng’s life, his Chronicle and his map in James Simpson and Sarah Peverley’s book.
The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth (a Cornish Passion poem) to Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall, as part of this programme, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.
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21 October 2021
The latest leg of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme sees the loan of the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth, a medieval Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ, to a new exhibition in Redruth. These manuscripts are on display from 23 October 2021 until 22 January 2022 at Kresen Kernow (‘Cornwall Centre’), in an exhibition entitled ‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’.
The Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381) is the earliest surviving manuscript known to have been in use in Cornwall. It was produced in Brittany towards the end of the 9th century, but by the 940s it had been taken to the Cornish priory of St Petroc. The priory was initially in Padstow, but subsequently relocated to Bodmin following Viking attacks.
The opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r
From the mid-10th to the 11th centuries, numerous scribes copied documents onto blank pages and into the margins around the text of the Gospels. These documents, known as manumissions, record the freeing of many enslaved individuals whose existence in Cornwall is not noted in any other sources. The text of some of the documents was erased in the past by scraping the ink off the parchment, but in recent years multispectral imaging has made these texts legible again.
The Bodmin Gospels is open at ff. 8v–9r in the exhibition in Redruth, showing a page with four added manumission documents on the left, opposite the first canon table, listing parallel passages in the four Gospels.
Copies of four manumission documents in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 8v
The first canon table in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 9r
On display alongside the Bodmin Gospels is Pascon Agan Arluth, a Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ (Harley MS 1782). This manuscript was written in the 15th century, and appears to be a copy of a text originally composed in the previous century, making it the earliest surviving complete Cornish text. It also includes 10 coloured drawings in the lower margins, and is the earliest known illustrated manuscript written in Cornish.
Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ before King Herod: Harley MS 1782, f. 9r
The narrative of the poem, written in 259 8-line stanzas, focuses on the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, drawing on the accounts found in the Gospels, with other additional material.
Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ carrying the Cross: Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
The project to develop Kresen Kernow, where the manuscripts are on display, was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Cornwall Council, to create a new home for Cornwall’s archives and gallery spaces, within the walls of the former Redruth Brewery. It opened in September 2019 and houses over 1.5 million manuscripts, maps and documents from Cornwall Record Office, as well as photographs, books and newspapers from the Cornish Studies Library, and the archaeological records and photographs from the Historic Environment Record.
The Kresen Kernow building in Redruth © Phil Boorman
The new exhibition in Redruth includes medieval items from Kresen Kernow’s own collection. It follows on from the display this summer of four early Cornish language play-scripts on loan from the Bodleian Library and the National Library of Wales: the Cornish Ordinalia; the Creation of the World; the Life of St Meriadoc (Bewnans Meriasek); and the Life of St Kea (Bewnans Ke).
‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’ opens to the public on Saturday 23 October 2021 and runs until Saturday 22 January 2022. More information on opening times and how to book free tickets is available on the Kresen Kernow website.
The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year, as part of this programme, we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as George Eliot’s manuscript of Middlemarch to Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.
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24 September 2021
What's the first thing that you think of when you hear the words 'the Green Knight'? Is it the new Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, which has its UK release on 24 September? Or, if you are a medieval nerd, is it the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we look after at the British Library?
We haven't yet seen the film (have you booked your tickets yet?) but the 14th-century manuscript is available to view in full online, and it is also currently on display, for free, in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Its full-page illustrations have a charm all of their own, even if they were once dismissed as 'coarsely executed'. Take, for instance, the scene shown below, which prefaces the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v). At the top of the page, Sir Gawain (dressed in red and holding an axe) is addressing King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at their distinctly un-round table. Below, the Green Knight mounted on his green horse holds his severed head aloft, in front of a clearly bemused Gawain.
There are three further illustrations accompanying the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all painted in the same palette and in which all the characters have identical features and hairstyles. These illustrations follow one another in sequence at the end of the poem (ff. 129r, 129v, 130r). First, we have Bertilak's lady entering Gawain's bedchamber in order to seduce him (f. 129r). She is wearing what seems to be a turban and a brightly spotted dressing gown. Gawain is swathed, quite fittingly, in a green blanket.
Then we have the scene of Sir Gawain (on horseback) and the Green Knight (wielding the axe) before the Green Chapel (f. 129v). It has to be said that this particular page is exceedingly green, with the odd hints of other colours to delineate Gawain and the Green Knight's blond hair.
Finally, a kneeling Gawain is shown being greeted by Arthur and Guinevere beneath a dark blue canopy (f. 130r). The perspective of the three figures at the rear is disproportionate to that of Gawain before them and the paint, it has to be said, has been applied rather thickly. But the king and queen's expressions say it all: Gawain has accomplished his challenge and has saved the honour of King Arthur's court.
There are some wonderful still images of The Green Knight movie available on the IMDb website. The costume design of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) and the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) clearly owes nothing to their medieval counterparts. But we love their distinctive headdresses — Dev Patel shown below looks a tad like a Sun King — and the sheer menace on the Green Knight's face. The image of the Green Knight riding into King Arthur's court (featuring, incidentally, a very round-looking table) makes our hairs stand on end. There may be little in common with the image in the unique medieval manuscript, but they both convey a similar mood. This is a moment of wonder, of real danger, and of enticing mystery. We hope the film lives up to expectations. Never has it been more appropriate to declare, "Off with his head!"
All film images courtesy of IMDb.com, and as used in other reviews of the movie
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23 September 2021
Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.
A love story
One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.
Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections.
Stories of famous women
In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.
Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.
A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.
A lovable rogue
Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.
Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.
Discover more medieval stories
Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.
But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here.
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19 July 2021
Five hundred years after the artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) travelled through the Low Countries, the exhibition “Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” has opened at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. Drawing on the detailed travel journal that Dürer kept, the exhibition reconstructs the artist’s journey, with a particular focus on the time he spent in Aachen in 1520 when he attended the coronation of Emperor Charles V.
The British Library is delighted to have loaned the only surviving page-fragments from Dürer’s original journal to the exhibition, where they are displayed with an early copy of the complete text, loaned by the Staatsbibliothek in Bamberg. The first British Library fragment shows two sketches of a piece of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a type of woman’s cloak worn in the Low Countries.
Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520: Add MS 5229, f. 50r
The second fragment contains two sketches of the Coat-of-Arms of Lorenz Staiber (1485/6–1539), writer, orator and patrician of Nuremberg, and mentioned by Dürer in his journal. The sketches are thought to have been made in preparation for a woodcut.
Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520-21: Add MS 5229, f. 59r
Dürer used his journal to document his itinerary, diet, expenses and earnings, and to record noteworthy sights, encounters with fellow artists, and meetings with influential individuals and patrons. The journal also mentions around 120 portrait drawings and a small number of paintings that Dürer produced and either sold or gifted during his travels. Now widely dispersed, the exhibition brings together many of these masterpieces, as well as works by some of the artists whom Dürer met and inspired on the way.
In addition to his extraordinary artistic abilities, Albrecht Dürer possessed a lifelong fascination with artistic theory. From about 1500 he became increasingly absorbed by his studies on the techniques and underlying principles of art and in particular on the correct depiction of the human body. The British Library holds four volumes of Dürer’s research notes, which relate overwhelmingly to his studies on human proportion. They contain numerous mathematically constructed drawings of men, women and children, accompanied by precise measurements and detailed notes in German on the correct construction of the human figure.
The sheet below is dated 1513 and bears Dürer’s characteristic ‘AD’ monogram. It shows a proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements. Dürer has used a framework of vertical and horizontal lines to calculate the dimensions of different sections of the body as fractions of the total height of the figure.
Proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements: Add MS 5230, f. 93r
Proportion drawing of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by measurements and step-by-step instructions in German on the correct construction of the figure: Add MS 5231, f. 5r
Proportion drawing of a male nude seen from the front and in profile: Add MS 5228, f. 124r
Proportion drawing of an infant: Add MS 5228, f. 186v
Drawing showing the construction of a male head in profile: Add MS 5230, f. 10r
As Dürer’s sketches of fencers in combat illustrate, he was also interested in the theory of movement and how to capture the appearance and form of the body in motion. The inscriptions accompanying the rapidly executed drawings explain that they show the positions for the blades and for counter-blows or parries.
Drawing of fencing positions, 1512: Add MS 5229, f. 67v
Albrecht Dürer’s extensive research, conducted over 30 years, culminated in the illustrated treatise Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion or ‘Four Books on Human Proportion’ which was posthumously published by his wife Agnes in Nuremberg in 1528.
“Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” runs in Aachen from 18 July until 24 October 2021.
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