Medieval manuscripts blog

273 posts categorized "Decoration"

18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

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10 November 2021

The Floreffe Bible on exhibition

This year is the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, in 1121. The anniversary is being celebrated in Namur at TreM.a: the Museum of Ancient Arts, with the exhibition Grandeur et déchéance. L’héritage patrimonial de l’abbaye de Floreffe which opened in late October.

The exhibition features the second volume of the enormous (480 x 335 mm) two-volume Bible made in Floreffe in around 1170, now in the British Library’s collection. The manuscript is open at the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, which features a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’ [quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem] (Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration).

The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke with a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’
The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r

Like the other miniatures in the Bible, this one provides a sophisticated visual commentary on the accompanying text. In part, the image relates to the Evangelist’s symbol of St Luke. From an early date, Church Fathers associated symbols with the Four Evangelists, derived from Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures with four faces (Ezekiel 1:5-11), and from St John’s vision of the four living creatures before the throne (Revelation 4:6-8). St Luke’s symbol is an ox or calf, while the others are a man for St Matthew, a lion for St Mark and an eagle for St John.

In the lower register of the miniature, a priest is sacrificing a calf on an altar. On either side are figures holding scrolls bearings texts from the Old or New Testament. To the left, King David, the supposed author of the Psalms, holds a scroll with Psalm 68:32: ‘[et] placebit Deo super vitulum novellum, cornua producentem et ungulas’ ([And] it shall please God better than a young calf, that bringeth forth horns and hoofs). To the right, St Luke, holding his symbol, which resembles the calf being sacrificed, holds a scroll with verses from Luke 15:22-23: ‘Dixit autem pater ad servos suos: . . . et adducite vitulum saginatum, et occidite’ (And the father said to his servants: . . .And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it).

Detail of the miniature, showing the priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side
The priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

The upper scene of the miniature is the Crucifixion of Christ, with the soldier Longinus on the left, piercing Christ's side with his spear, and the soldier Stephaton on the right, holding a sponge filled with vinegar. Just above the transverse beam of the cross, the Old and New Testament quotations and supposed authors are reversed in order. On the left, St Paul holds a scroll with a verse from Hebrews 9:12: ‘[neque per sanguinem hircorum aut vitulorum, sed] per proprium sanguinem introivit semel in Sancta’ ([Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but] by his own blood, entered once into the holies). On the right, a crowned King David points directly at Christ; his scroll contains a verse from Psalm 109:4: ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech).

Detail of the miniature, showing the Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David
The Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

Rhymed verses inscribed on the arch above summarise the significance of the images:

Pro nevo fraudis vitulus datur hostia laudis
Quod Christus vitulus sit docet hic titulus

For the blemish of the fraud [i. e., of the devil] a calf is given as the sacrifice of praise [c.f. Hebrews 13:15]
That this calf is Christ is what this inscription shows.

(Translation by Peter Toth).

Each of the Gospels in the Floreffe Bible opens with a similar image with layered interpretations and visual commentaries. For example, you can read about the opening of the Gospel of St Mark, which explores the relationship between the lion and Christ’s Resurrection, in our previous blogpost.

Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, with a miniature showing the Resurrection of Christ and a lion
Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 179v

Another of the images in the manuscript, at the beginning of the Book of Job, connects the family of Job to the three theological virtues and the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. You can also read about this page in a previous blogpost.

The first volume of the Floreffe Bible is also on public display, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London, where it is open to St Jerome’s letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in which he urges Paulinus to make a diligent study of the Scriptures. Both volumes are also available online on our Digitised Manuscript website.

Kathleen Doyle
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28 October 2021

Into the inferno

700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.

A poster for the exhibition Inferno.
The exhibition poster for Inferno, curated by Jean Clair, at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.

The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.

A representation of the Last Judgement from the Winchester Psalter, showing an enormous hell-mouth swallowing demons and the souls of the damned, and an archangel locking the gates of Hell.
The Last Judgement, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.

The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing a crowd of sinners swallowed by the Mouth of Hell during the Last Judgement.
A crowd of sinners in the Mouth of Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail)

Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing an archangel locking the door to Hell, during the Last Judgement.
An archangel locks the doors to Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail).

You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.


Calum Cockburn
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19 October 2021

Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours

Long celebrated for its superb illuminations, the Saluces Hours (Add MS 27697) has been described by the art historian John Plummer as ‘one of the finest and most inventive manuscripts illuminated during the 15th century’. Yet it was only in 1989 that the art historian François Avril identified most of its miniatures as the work of Antoine de Lonhy, a prolific, multifaceted and well-travelled artist of the 15th century.

Antoine de Lonhy is the subject of a new exhibition, Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy (The European Renaissance of Antoine De Lonhy), which opened at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin on 7 October 2021, and will run until 9 January 2022. The Saluces Hours is a focal point of the exhibition, appearing in the first room together with a painting of Lonhy in the collection of the Palazzo Madama. Other works by Lonhy and his contemporaries include manuscripts, panel paintings, stained glass, sculptures and textiles. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view other miniatures from the manuscript shown digitally beside it. 

Miniature of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r

The Saluces Hours is a manuscript with a complicated genesis. It was produced in Savoy, which in the 15th century was in independent duchy, and today comprises an area of southeast France and northwest Italy. The manuscript was originally begun around the 1440s, several decades before Lonhy’s involvement in the project. In this first stage, the text was probably completed and the process of illuminating the book begun. Some of the pictures and borders from this phase are attributed to Peronet Lamy (d. before 1453), an artist who worked for the court of Savoy from around 1432 to 1443, whose work is particularly apparent in the miniature of St John the Evangelist (f. 13r).

Miniature of St John the Evangelist
St John the Evangelist writing his Gospel on the island of Patmos, by Peronet Lamy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 13r

Another contemporary artist, known as the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy (after Paris, BnF, MS Lat. 9473) also contributed eight miniatures, as well as the historiated initials which accompany them. He might have done this concurrently with the original campaign of work, or perhaps he took over when Peronet Lamy stopped working on the book.

Miniature of the Wedding at Cana
The Wedding at Cana, by the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 49r

But for some reason, the project stalled and for over a decade the beautiful book was left unfinished. Then in around 1460-1470, Antoine de Lonhy took it up and completed it. As well as adding lots of new pictures, he also retouched the earlier artworks to increase the impression of stylistic coherence, and in some cases he may have painted on underdrawings made by the previous artists.

Although the book was originally intended for a male owner, as suggested by the inclusion of prayers which are grammatically phrased for the use of a man, Lonhy seems to have completed the new work for a woman. He painted her in an owner portrait, kneeling before the Virgin and Child and followed by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua. She is gorgeously dressed in a fur-trimmed dress, a weighty gold collar, and a towering conical hat (know as a hennin).

Detail of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two Franciscan saints, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

Yet the identity of this glamorous owner has proved puzzling. The borders of the manuscript regularly feature the coat of arms of the Saluces family of Piedmont (argent a chief azure), as well as in two places the coat of arms of the d'Urfé family (vair a chief gules). Based on this heraldic evidence, it used to be thought that the owner was Aimée (or Amadée) de Saluces (b. 1420, d. 1473), daughter of Mainfroy de Saluces of Piedmont. Aimée married Guillaume-Armand de Polignac around 1441, and their daughter Catherine married Pierre d'Urfé in 1489.

However, scholars no longer agree with this identification because the manuscript does not contain the Polignac arms, despite dating stylistically from the period after Aimée’s marriage. Further, the coats of arms appear to be later additions to the manuscript, and probably do not refer to the woman who Lonhy worked for at all. It is more likely that both the original and later patrons of the Book of Hours, with its close similarities to the Hours of Louis of Savoy, were members of Savoy's Ducal family. It is now thought that the woman is possibly Yolande of France (b. 1434, d. 1478), wife of Duke Amadeus IX of Savoy. 

Illuminated Arms of Saluces
Arms of Saluces, argent a chief azure: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

We know more about the artist, Antoine de Lonhy, thanks to the work of art historians who have meticulously identified his works and reconstructed his career, now further elucidated in the exhibition and exhibition catalogue. Apparently French by birth, he seems to have started his career in the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1440s. By the 1450s he was documented working in Toulouse, and in 1460-62 he was working in Barcelona. He seems to have settled in Piedmont around 1462, and he worked on commissions in Savoy and Piedmont in around 1470-90. Dozens of his attributed artworks survive in a surprisingly wide variety of media, including panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.

Despite his wide-ranging travels, Antoine de Lonhy’s style is closely linked to the northern European Gothic art in which he was trained. The ornamental architecture in his pictures is always Gothic rather than Classical, although Classical architecture was flourishing in Italy at the time. His pictures show a depth of space and an interest in sweeping landscapes that suggests he was well versed in the work of great Flemish artists of the first half of the 15th century such as Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van der Weyden. His figures are softly modelled with sensitive faces, draperies that fall into elaborate deep folds, and sometimes strikingly lifelike anatomy, as illustrated in the picture of the naked Adam and Eve in the Saluces Hours.

Miniature of God with Adam and Eve
God speaking to Adam while Eve sleeps: Add MS 27697, f. 213r

To discover more about Antoine de Lonhy and see a great range of his works, visit the exhibition Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, from 7 October, 2021 to 9 January, 2022.

You can read more about the subject in exhibition catalogue, Il Rinascimento europeo di Antoine De Lonhy, ed. by Simone Baiocco e Vittorio Natale (Genova: SAGEP, 2021), and you can find further bibliography in our catalogue record. You can also view the Saluces Hours online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. 

Eleanor Jackson

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27 September 2021

A figured poem

The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.

A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.

Figured poem in the shape of a cross from De Laudibus sancte crucis
The sixteenth figural poem of book 1, bordered by a twining pattern, depicting a cross composed of overlapping quatrefoils in yellow and blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 21v

Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious
Figural poem with foliate border dedicating Hrabanus's work to Emperor Louis the Pious, shown with nimbus, shield, and cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 2v

Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).

Figured poem spelling out 'Crux salus' in the shape of a cross
The third figural poem of book 1, bordered by foliage and coloured roundels, depicting the epigram, 'Crux salus' (The salvific Cross) in blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 8v

The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.

Figured poem with a cross and a portrait of Rabanus Maurus
The twenty-eighth figural poem of book 1, bordered by an inhabited vine scroll with birds, animals, and human figures, depicting Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v
 
Detail of the portrait of Rabanus Maurus
Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v (detail)

Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious from BnF MS Lat. 11685
Figural poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 11685, f. 5v

You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

The Polonsky Foundation logo

23 September 2021

Dragons, heroes, myths and magic

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.

Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven
Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven, with the earthly paradise beneath, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

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

Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose
Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose, with the Holy Trinity and the orders of angels among the petals, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 185r

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.

Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine
Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine, with ships in the foreground, in Christine de Pizan, 'L'Épître Othéa', The Book of the Queen (France, Paris, c. 1410-c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 140r

Travellers’ tales

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.

Scenes of legendary people
Cyclops eating raw fish, blemmyae watched by Mandeville who is writing in a book, and men with eyes and mouth in their backs, Mandeville’s Travels (England, 1400-1450): Harley MS 3954, f. 42r

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.

Illustrations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain, King Arthur and Guinevere at table; below, Gawain holds an axe and the Green Knight, on a green horse, holds his own severed head, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, Midlands, 1375-1424): Cotton MS Nero A x/2, f. 94v

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.

Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck
Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck, Roman de Renart (France or England, 14th century): Add MS 15229, f. 13r

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.

Frontispiece to The History of Reynard the Foxe, with the title and floral borders
Frontispiece to William Caxton (transl.), The History of Reynard the Foxe, with woodcut borders and ornamental initial letters designed by William Morris (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892): British Library C.43.f.3.

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.

Dragons heroes myths and magic cover

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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21 July 2021

Miniature books

Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
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09 July 2021

Murder most foul in the Cotswolds

Opening the door of a pretty Norman church down a country lane in the Cotswold village of South Newington, I was shocked to be confronted by two rather violent murder scenes painted on the wall. The first is of a man being viciously cut down while he raises his hands in prayer; his head is split in two by a sword, and blood spurts over his forehead. Though the paintings are rather fragmentary and difficult to make out at first, the figure in the red cloak, his hands raised in prayer is unmistakeably Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an event that caused a great scandal throughout Christendom.

Beside it is another violent scene that has been identified as the execution in 1322 of Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who led a rebellion against King Edward II (r. 1307-1327). He is also shown kneeling while his executioner towers over him, using all his force to chop off his head. Drops of blood spurt from his neck – by one account it took several blows to decapitate him. Both paintings have been dated to the 1330s.

Two fragmentary wall paintings. Left, a kneeling man is hit on the head with a sword. Right, a kneeling man is attacked by a standing soldier from behind.
Wall Paintings in St Peter ad Vincula church, South Newington, Oxfordshire, of the murder of St Thomas Becket and the execution of Thomas Plantagenet. Photos by Chantry Westwell

While attempts to canonise Thomas Plantagenet were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, Thomas Becket was made a saint not long after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular destination of pilgrimage. Two hundred years later, Henry VIII did his utmost to stamp out the cult of Becket and ordered all representations of him to be destroyed. Becket’s face in this painting only survived because it had an image of St George, another popular English saint, painted over it at a later date. It was uncovered and restored in the 20th century.

Had the full scene in the wall painting survived, it may have looked a little like one of the two scenes below. Both are dated to the early part of the 14th century and are in the margins of personal prayerbooks probably made in south-eastern England. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a whole series of more than 20 images from the life and afterlife of St Thomas Becket. 

Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling saint with swords, while a man holds a cross over him. The word Thomas is written beneath
The murder of Thomas Becket in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 237r (detail)
Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling bishop with swords, while a man holds a cross out from behind an altar
The murder of St Thomas Becket in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 85v (detail)

The Taymouth Hours has numerous scenes of the torture and murder of saints across the lower margins. On the other side of the page from Becket is an even more gruesome scene: the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned on a brazier. 

A tonsured, nude figure is burned on a brazier over red flames, while a figure uses bellows to stoke the fire
The martyrdom of St Lawrence in The Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86r (detail)

A finely painted miniature from the 15th century of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral shows details of Thomas’s ethereal gaze, the grim facial expressions of the attackers and the elaborately decorated backdrop of the sanctuary. This is from a rather small prayer book (about the size of a Kindle), but the digital images allow us to zoom in and see the exquisite details clearly.

A churchman in robes with a halo kneels at an altar, looking upwards, while two knights attack him with weapons and two watch; behind are statues and the apse of the cathedral; the border has flowers and gold foliate decoration
The murder of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 55v

As one of the most popular English saints, Becket was frequently depicted alongside other well-known saints. Here in a Psalter from northern England he is shown with two much-venerated female martyrs of the early Church: St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch.

Four knights on the left of the upper image, one hitting the kneeling saint with a long sword, while a monk holds a cross over him; in the lower image, Saints Margaret and Catherine
The Murder of Thomas Becket (above); St Margaret emerges from the belly of a dragon, and beats a demon with a whip (lower left); St Catherine prays amidst the dead bodies of the men who attempted to martyr her by breaking her over a wheel, while an angel breaks the wheels with clubs (lower right); in the Huth Psalter: Add MS 38116, f. 13r

My encounter with the image of Thomas Becket in the Cotswolds was timely, as the 850th anniversary of his murder is being marked this summer by an exhibition at the British Museum (postponed from 2020), Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. Included among the objects on display are other British Library manuscripts with scenes from his life and death, featured in our recent blogpost, Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint. There's also more about saints in medieval manuscripts, including Becket, on the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project website.

You can also discover amazing images from British Library manuscripts for yourself using the 'Advanced Search' page in the our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you search for ‘Becket’ in the 'Image description' field, twenty-five results are displayed, some from manuscripts in this blogpost. For example, the Queen Mary Psalter (seen above) includes this scene of Thomas Becket being brought into the Lord’s presence by two angels. It is beneath a full-page image of the Trinity in the section containing the Canticles. 

Drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord
A bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r (detail)
The Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket
A miniature of the Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r

Chantry Westwell

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