THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

102 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

04 February 2021

Loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East of England

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The British Library and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums are delighted to announce the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle for an exhibition scheduled to open in 2022. This exhibition will explore the contemporary resonance of this spectacular and justly celebrated manuscript in a range of personal, regional and national contexts, focusing on themes such as identity, creativity, learning and a sense of place.

At the same time next year, Newcastle City Library will stage a complementary exhibition. This will be accompanied by a range of public, community and school events across the North East, and a newly commissioned artwork to reimagine the Gospels for the 21st century.

A decorated carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gospels

The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

The exhibition in Newcastle will see the fifth loan of the Gospels to the North East. The manuscript was loaned to Durham Cathedral in 1987, the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert. This was followed by two loans to the Laing Art Gallery in 1996 and 2000, and the most recent loan in 2013 to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’ exhibition at Durham University, which generated great excitement in the region and attracted nearly 100,000 visitors.

A photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels in a glass display case at Durham in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels on display at Palace Green Library, Durham University, in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels has also featured in two recent temporary exhibitions at the British Library that focused on different aspects of the manuscript. In 2018–19, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition included a spectacular display of illuminated manuscripts from the Golden Age of Northumbria.

Photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels being removed from its box for display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels being installed in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels was displayed with the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin, the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Durham Gospels on loan from Durham Cathedral, the St Cuthbert Gospel, and Codex Amiatinus, returning to Britain from Italy for the first time in 1300 years. In contrast, in the 2019 exhibition, ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’, the beautiful Insular Half-Uncial script of the Gospels was the focus. It was displayed with other manuscripts dating from the 6th to the 15th centuries to illustrate the many different scripts used during the Middle Ages for the Roman alphabet.

A text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels displayed in the ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ exhibition, showing the Insular Half-Uncial script: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 208r

Although the British Library's physical sites are currently closed to the public, when we are able to reopen our exhibitions the Lindisfarne Gospels will be on display again in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery alongside other highlights from the national collection. So we look forward both to sharing the Gospels in the Treasures Gallery later this year, and to the loan of Gospels to Newcastle next year. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Lindisfarne Gospels on our website and explore all the pages of the manuscript in detail on Digitised Manuscripts.

A decorated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

 

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 January 2021

Bede, The Dig and Sutton Hoo

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This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial

A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum

Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.

Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.

The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.

A decorated initial B in a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').

A text-page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.

A still from the Netflix production of The Dig

A still from The Dig (Netflix)

The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.

The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

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Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 May 2020

Remembering Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

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This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.

Spong Man on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)

Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.

Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.

An illuminated page from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Moore Bede

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library

The opening page of Textus Roffensis

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)

Round the corner, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels shared a case.

A decorated page from the Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin

A decorated page from the Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)

In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)

Codex Amiatinus on display in the exhibition

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)

The room focusing on Mercia included the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, displayed next to King Offa’s gold dinar.

The Lichfield Angel on display in the exhibition

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

The gold dinar of King Offa

Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights of the room on the West Saxons were the Alfred Jewel displayed directly in front of a case containing the copy of the Pastoral Care that Alfred sent to Worcester.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)

A page from King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care

The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)

The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.

The four poetic codices on display

The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)

Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A page for Yorkshire in Great Domesday

Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)

Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library

An opening of two pages from the Harley Psalter

The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603

A page from the Eadwine Psalter

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)

Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.

 

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 May 2020

The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library

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The British Library is collaborating with Durham University to offer a fully-funded full-time or part-time PhD studentship via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The student’s research will focus on the legend of Alexander the Great, and the successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Venetia Bridges (Durham) and Dr Peter Toth (British Library).

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

Alexander the Great on Fortune’s Wheel, in a French chronicle of the ancient world (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 4376, f. 271r (detail)

Alexander the Great is one of the most fascinating figures of the ancient world. He conquered the world from Greece to India in less than 10 years. Although he died in 323 BC when he was only 33, Alexander's legacy continues to influence European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

A drawing of Alexander the Great holding an orb and sceptre, with Philosophy holding a pot and brush

Alexander the Great, anointed by the personification of Philosophy, in a Latin version of the Alexander Romance (England, last quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

In the last two millennia, Alexander the Great has been represented as a magician, a scientist, a statesman, a philosopher and as one of the greatest explorers of humankind. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to the legend of Alexander provides an exceptional opportunity for PhD research into his immense impact on European literary culture from a transnational and multilingual perspective. As a student at Durham but working on the British Library’s collections, the successful applicant will have a unique opportunity to study the fascinating Alexander legends in their primary sources. This studentship will coincide with an exhibition about the legends of Alexander to be held at the British Library in late 2022. 

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

Alexander the Great fighting the headless blemmyae in a French version of the Alexander Romance (Flanders 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 72v (detail)

Legends of Alexander’s life and conquests were combined into a narrative, known as the Alexander Romance, soon after his death. This compilation quickly became a ‘best-seller’, with translations in almost every language of the medieval Mediterranean, including Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, English, French and German. Moreover, many of these texts are lavishly decorated with fascinating combinations of ancient and medieval imagery.

Applicants are invited to propose a multilingual and comparative project on Alexander’s reception from Late Antiquity to the close of the Middle Ages in European contexts, with a particular focus on the Alexander Romance. The proposal should focus on texts in more than one language, and include manuscripts in the Library’s collections. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • the Alexander Romance’s influence upon high medieval literature (11th-13th centuries);
  • the Alexander Romance’s influence on travel and scientific literature and geographical exploration;
  • the Alexander Romance’s dissemination in the later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) in translations, adaptations and material witnesses;
  • a comparative study of the Alexander Romance in Western (European) and Eastern (Byzantine and Slavonic) versions;
  • the role of Alexander in royal and religious propaganda, including ‘nationalist’ historiographies and Crusader literature;
  • a study of key medieval manuscripts and/or texts related to the Alexander Romance that demonstrate aspects of Alexander’s appropriation in different cultures;
  • the Late Antique beginnings of the Alexander Romance’s textual histories.

Applicants

The successful applicant will have multilingual interests in medieval and/or late Antique literature and culture with reading fluency in at least two European languages. Applicants should have received a first or high upper-second class honours degree and a master’s either achieved or completed by the time of taking up the doctoral study, both in a relevant discipline. Applicants must satisfy the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Stipend

For the academic year 2020-21 the student stipend will be £16,885, consisting of £15,285 basic stipend, a maintenance payment of £600 and an additional allowance of £1,000. The British Library will also provide a research allowance to the student for agreed research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

Duration

The studentship is fully funded for 3 years and 9 months full-time or part-time equivalent, with the potential to be extended by a further 3 months to provide additional professional development opportunities.

For full details and how to apply, please visit https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/postgrad/support/

The deadline for applications, including references, is 5pm on 29 May 2020.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 February 2020

10 years of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog

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This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.

10. Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Medieval manuscript miniature of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v

Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.

9. The voices of ancient women

Papyrus with a drawing of a girl
A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century, Papyrus 113 (15c)

We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.

8. The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

The Codex Amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.

7. Loch Ness Monster found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of the Loch Ness monster capsizing a boat with a monk looking on
An artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (Sarah J Biggs, 2013)

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?

6. Unicorn cookbook found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of a man cooking a unicorn on a grill
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in the Unicorn Cookbook

By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.

5. Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

A photo of Julian and Sarah at the Blog Awards
Julian and Sarah triumphant at the UK Blog Awards

One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!

4. White gloves or not white gloves

A photo of a hand wearing white gloves

We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.

3. Hwæt! Beowulf online

The opening words of the Beowulf manuscript
The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

On the Blog we provide regular updates on which manuscripts are available to view online. It’s especially exciting when our favourites go online, and over the years we have announced the digitisation of star manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch, Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the Luttrell Psalter and more. But the announcement that received the greatest attention was the 2013 digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript, the most famous poem in the Old English language.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel saved for the nation

The front cover of the Cuthbert gospel, featuring tooled leather with interlace and plant designs
The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Wearmouth-Jarrow, late 7th century: Add MS 89000

The Blog is also where we announce new acquisitions. The most thrilling of these was when we acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel following the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Created in the early 8th century in the North-East of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham Cathedral, this is the earliest intact European book. Since 2010 we’ve also welcomed into the collection treasures such as the Mostyn Psalter-Hours, the Southwark Hours, the Percy Hours and a leaf from an Anglo-Saxon benedictional.

1. Knight v Snail

Medieval manuscript depiction of a knight fighting a snail
Knight v Snail in the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324: Add MS 49622, f. 193v

Our number one is our most viewed blogpost of all time: the phenomenally popular Knight v Snail. In 2013, a trip to the manuscripts store room to look at some medieval genealogical rolls resulted in a blogpost about the ultimate adversaries of the medieval margins. Why do knights fight snails in medieval manuscripts? No one knows for sure but, as our viewers have demonstrated, it certainly makes for great entertainment.

There are so many blogposts we haven't been able to mention here — Lolcats of the Middle Ages, anyone? Crisp as a poppadom, Shot through the heart and you're to blame, A medieval rainbow, New regulations for consulting manuscripts, Help us decipher this inscription — suffice to say, this is our 1,299th blogpost, and in the last 10 years the Blog has attracted over 5.25 million views from almost 200 countries ... more than enough to pass a rainy day.

Thank you so much to our talented writers and loyal readers — you’re all brilliant. Editing the blog is such a wonderful experience and we're incredibly grateful to everyone who has made it possible. Here’s to the next ten years!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 February 2020

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution

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The exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent this week, aiming to bring the medieval world of the Flemish court painter to life and contextualise his ground-breaking developments in oil painting. Around twenty works by Jan van Eyck (b. before 1390, d. 1441) have survived to the present day and are now housed at institutions around the world. Over half of these will be displayed in the museum for the next two months, most notably ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a 15th-century altarpiece from St Bavo’s Cathedral that has recently undergone extensive restoration. The exhibition will display these items alongside pieces by Van Eyck’s contemporaries from France, Spain, Italy and Germany, gathering together numerous examples of late medieval painting, miniature art, sculpture and drawings.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a panel painting showing a sheep standing on an altar with a stream of blood emitting from its breast into a chalice, surrounded by praying angels
Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (detail), at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

The British Library has loaned to the exhibition two medieval manuscripts that particularly highlight the artistic environment in which Van Eyck was working. The first is a beautifully illuminated Book of Hours produced in Paris in around 1410 for a French aristocratic or possibly royal patron (Egerton MS 1070). Around 1440 it came into the possession of the bibliophile René of Anjou, King of Naples (b. 1409, d. 1480) and subsequently five full-page illustrations were added at key points in the manuscript, apparently at the request of the Neapolitan king who wanted to customize it for his own use. Most recent scholars have attributed these added illustrations to Barthélemy d'Eyck (b. c. 1420, d. after 1470), a Netherlandish artist known to have worked for René in the middle of the fifteenth century. He also seems to have been a member of Jan van Eyck’s family, though the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear.

The additions to the manuscript include a painting of René’s coat of arms, followed by a view of Jerusalem, showing two of the city’s most sacred sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock.

The coat of arms of René of Anjou
The coat of arms of René of Anjou, King of Naples, added to a French Book of Hours (Paris, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 4v

 

A view of the city of Jerusalem, showing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock
A view of the city of Jerusalem, showing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, added to a French Book of Hours (Paris, France, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 5r

Another addition is a macabre personification of Death wearing a golden crown, which was added directly before the Office of the Dead. It might be a portrait of the king himself, a reminder to René to live wisely. The worm-eaten corpse clasps a scroll inscribed ‘Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris’ (Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return), while in front of him a textile is displayed, bearing the king’s arms.

A personification of Death wearing a golden crown
A personification of Death wearing a golden crown, added before the Office of the Dead in a French Book of Hours (Paris, c. 1410): Egerton MS 1070, f. 53r

The exhibition also features the first volume of a five-part Latin Vulgate bible, made in Liège in around 1430 and later housed at the Benedictine monastery of St Jacques in the city. This volume has been recently digitised and now can be viewed online (Add MS 15254). The first page of the Book of Genesis (f. 13r) opens with a decorated initial letter I(n Principio), containing illustrations of the days of Creation. At the side of the initial is a column of angels holding scrolls with quotations from the writings of St Augustine of Hippo (b. 354, d. 430). Beneath them is a kneeling cleric, who possibly represents the manuscript’s patron. 

The opening of the Book of Genesis, with a decorated initial I including representations of the days of Creation, and marginal illustrations of angels, philosophers, and Old Testament prophets
The opening of the Book of Genesis, with a decorated initial I including representations of the days of Creation, and marginal illustrations of angels, philosophers, and Old Testament prophets. (Southern Netherlands, c. 1430): Add MS 15254, f. 13r

 

St Augustine and Aristotle, and Albertus Magnus and Averroes debate the creation of the world
St Augustine and Aristotle, and Albertus Magnus and Averroes debate the creation of the world, in marginal illustrations at the beginning of the Book of Genesis (Southern Netherlands, c. 1430): Add MS 15254, f. 13r detail

Other illustrations were added to the page at a later date, and these display a close resemblance to a style typically used for panel painting during this period. In the lower margin, two pairs of Christian and pagan scholars are shown debating the creation of the world: St Augustine and the Greek philosopher Aristotle (b. 384 BC, d. 322 BC) on one side, and Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and the Arabic philosopher Averroes (b. 1126, d. 1198) on the other. Meanwhile, in the right-hand margin appear representations of three Old Testament prophets. Though the identity of the manuscript’s illuminator remains unknown, the style of the added illustrations has been closely compared with that of Van Eyck and it is likely that the two artists were working in the same circle in the Meuse region (now covering parts of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands).

We strongly recommend that you go to see both these manuscripts on display at Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), Ghent, from 1 February until 30 April 2020.

Calum Cockburn

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19 December 2019

Renard the Fox, rebel and mischief-maker

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The British Library's new family-friendly exhibition, Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature's Young Rebels, features some of the most lovable young hell-raisers in fiction. They include Matilda, Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and a host of animal characters, from Zog the Dragon to the beast in Billy and the Beast.

Literary rebels and mischief makers have been around for a very long time and one of the best known is an animal — Renard the Fox. He is a cunning prankster who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his own tricks.

A fox and a crow in a tree, dropping its piece of cheese

A fox persuading the crow to drop its cheese, in an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Renard persuades the crow to sing and drop the cheese he is holding, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 33r

The Renard stories are part of a long tradition of animal fables across Indo-European cultures and languages, from Afghanistan to Zaragoza. Other famous examples include the Sanskrit Panchatantra (around AD 300) and the classical Aesop’s Fables. The Roman de Renart, a French cycle of poems, became so popular that the original word for fox, ‘goupil’, was replaced by ‘renart’ in Middle French (it derives from the German ‘Raginhard’, meaning brave). An expression of the comical and satirical spirit of the time, the Roman de Renart parodies aspects of courtly literature, aristocratic refinement and religious hypocrisy. One of the British Library's illuminated copies, containing 14 of the tales and 13 colour miniatures, has recently been digitised and is now available online.

A crowing cockerel, on a page from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Renart

Chanticleer the cockerel, in Le Roman de Renart: Add MS 15229, f. 13r

In one of the most popular medieval tales, Renard manages to sneak into a chicken enclosure. The hens see him and scatter, but Chanticleer the cockerel, whose bravado exceeds his common sense, ignores the threat. Renard immediately sets about flattering him, calling him ‘Master Chanticleer’ and ‘cousin’, and persuading him to demonstrate his beautiful voice. Stretching his neck, both eyes closed, Chanticleer crows with all his might, a perfect opportunity for Renard to seize him by the throat and run off. However, the wily fox is caught out when Chanticleer encourages him to shout insults at the farmer giving chase. He opens his mouth and the cockerel escapes. Renard later plays a similar trick on the crow. The story of Chanticleer was later adapted by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales as the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.

Scenes of foxes and cockerels are sometimes found in the margins of religious and scholarly manuscripts, like this volume of scholastic texts produced in a Paris workshop.

A detail of a fox with a cockerel in its mouth

The whole page of the manuscript, with the fox holding the cockerel in its mouth in the upper margin

A fox with a cockerel in his mouth, in the upper margin: Burney MS 275, f. 336r

In the lower margin of a Psalter, a cockerel sings from a book on a music stand, watched closely by a fox. This mirrors the religious scene above it, showing three monks singing at a lectern.

A cockerel singing to a fox, below a decorated initial of three monks singing

‘Let us sing to the Lord a new song’, Psalm 95 in the 'Oscott Psalter': Add MS 50000, f. 146v

In another famous episode, Renard the Fox is present at the court of King Noble, the Lion, and is accused of serious crimes against his fellow animals. He is sentenced to be hanged. But Noble falls seriously ill and Renard sets out to try to redeem himself by finding a cure. He steals a bag of herbal remedies from a sleeping pedlar and, having performed an examination on the king, promises to heal him provided he is given the skin of a wolf, the antlers of a stag and the fur of a cat. The outcome is that Noble is cured, Renart is restored to favour, Isengrin the wolf is skinned, Brichemer the stag is de-horned and Tibert the cat is lucky to escape. This story is illustrated in the margins of a book of canon law known as the Smithfield Decretals, a medieval masterpiece decorated with over 600 illustrations on subjects varying from saints’ Lives to romances.

A fox feeling the lion's pulse

A wolf being skinned by two foxes

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f055r

(1) A fox with a staff and pouch feels the pulse of a lion; (2) a wolf is skinned by two foxes; (3) above, a fox with a pilgrim bag and staff; below, a smiling fox sets off, leaving slaughtered creatures behind him (right); the fox bows to a lion, offering him a dead goose and money bag (centre), in the ‘Smithfield Decretals’: Royal MS 10 E IV, ff. 54r, 56v, 55r

Likewise, in Spiegel der Weisheit, a collection assembled in German for Albrecht IV, Duke of Austria (1395–1404), there is a story of a fox going on a pilgrimage, illustrated in this manuscript from Salzburg.

A fox and other animals, about to set off on pilgrimage

A fox, setting off on a pilgrimage, refusing the companionship of the watch-dog, lion, peacock and others, and instead choosing the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, young hound, and the ant, Spiegel der Weisheit: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

Our free Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition abounds with tales of young literary rebels, following in the tradition of Renard the Fox. It is on at the British Library until 1 March 2020, and is well worth a visit this holiday season.

 

Chantry Westwell

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