Medieval manuscripts blog

150 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

10 November 2022

Florimont, flower of the world

History records that Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias. (A rumour that his real father was the Egyptian pharoah Nectanebus is described in our blogpost A pharaoh in disguise). But having royal parents was never enough for a popular medieval hero; they were expected to have an entire dynasty of illustrious ancestors. And so various prequels were written, conjuring up marvellous origins for Alexander, and mixing real people with invented characters.

One of these origin stories is found in the French Roman de Florimont. This tells of Alexander's imaginary grandparents, the Albanian hero, Florimont, or ‘flower of the world’, and Romadanaple, a beautiful princess. Florimont was the son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania, and his wife Edonia, while Romadanaple’s parents were a certain King Philip of Greece, and Amorydale, daughter of the ‘King of Africa’.   

A kneeling messenger hands a letter to a king seated on a throne beside a queen, both crowned and holding sceptres

Alexander the Great’s parents, King Philip of Macedon and Queen Olympias, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César (France, 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 121r

The romance of Florimont begins in Greece. King Philip, having founded the city of Philippolis, is under attack from the evil Camdiobras, King of Hungary. Philip has a beautiful daughter, Romadanaple, who he keeps hidden from her numerous suitors; but she becomes the subject of unwelcome attentions from Camdiobras, who threatens to carry her off. Meanwhile, in Albania, Duke Mataquas has a son named Florimont, whose destiny is revealed to him in a dream — he sees a lion cub leaving his palace to join a powerful male lion, then going on to defeat a monster and a huge wild boar.

But all doesn't proceed simply. The young Florimont falls under the spell of the Lady of the Island of Celée, who takes him to her enchanted world. He is rescued by his mother and freed from the spell, but spends some time wandering about under the name Pauvre Perdu (poor lost boy). At last, Florimont joins a group of warriors who are riding to rescue King Philip from Camdiobras. By single-handedly defeating the Hungarian attacker, Florimont wins the hand of the beautiful Romadanaple and her inheritance, which he unites with his own.

Inside a palace bearded king places the crown on the head of a kneeling prince with a crowned lady kneeling beside him. A group of courtiers watch.

The coronation of Florimont and Romadanaple, in the Livre du Roy Florimont fiz du duc d'AlbanyeParis, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms français 12566, f. 179v 

Florimont goes on to have many adventures, including defeating a monstrous sea dragon and returning to Albania to rescue his parents from a giant, who has imprisoned them in a castle. Most importantly, Florimont and Romadanaple have a son, who becomes Philip II of Macedon. Philip marries Olympias and their son is none other than Alexander the Great.  

Aimon de Varennes, author of the romance of Florimont, was a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France. Aimon claimed to have unearthed the tale during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

A photograph of a walled medieval town with towers on a hilltop.-800wi
The village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009 

Aimon may have travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive. His Romance does retain certain ‘Greek’ words, which demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out in the prequel in a 13th-century manuscript of the Roman de Florimont (Harley MS 4487).

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement

Il lavoit en grece veue ...                                     

A Phelippole la trova                                            

A chastillon len aporta                                         

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                   

('Aymon conceived the romance well

He had seen it in Greece

He found it in Philippolis

Brought it to Chatillon

As he had learned it

He changed it from Latin into Romance')

(f. 3r, column 1, lines 8–9; 31–36)

A text page in 2 columns with red initials, and a note in cursive script beneath
The opening page of the manuscript with the author’s name and a 14th century ownership inscription in the lower margin, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' (?Lotharingia, 1295): Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

Towards the end of the tale, Aimon even claims that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage   

(f. 85v, column 2, lines 13–14)

You can discover more tales connected to Alexander in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth. The show is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023, and tickets can be purchased online or in person, subject to availability.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 November 2022

A pharaoh in disguise

Nectanebus II was the last pharaoh and native king of Egypt, who reigned from approximately 360 to 342 BC. His rule began relatively successfully, but he fled Egypt after he was defeated by the Persian ruler, Artaxerxes III. Little is known of his life thereafter, but rumours spread that Nectanebus had an affair with Olympias, queen of Macedonia, and that he fathered her illegitimate son. That boy grew up to become one of the most famous people in the ancient world: Alexander the Great. You can explore their story in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth.

Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments.

Olympias enthroned with Nectanebus wearing a white robe and holding a case of astronomical instruments, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r

Stories about Alexander’s alleged Egyptian origins gained considerable popularity during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. They included legends about his life and conquests, such as the Greek Alexander Romance attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes. This Greek romance became the main source for later medieval legends of the Macedonian conqueror, many of which began with extended prologues recounting Alexander’s conception via Olympias’s (not so) secret affair with Nectanebus, the exiled pharaoh.

Nectanebus enthroned within a large tower, above him is written ‘Nectaneb[us] rois d’Egipte’ (Nectanebus king of Egypt). Left to Nectanebus is another tower with two trumpeters.

‘Nectanebus King of Egypt’ enthroned, in the prose Roman d'Alexandre (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 4v

Some medieval texts embraced the rumours of Alexander’s Egyptian ancestry. Other authors were more sceptical and condemned them as slandering the Macedonian queen’s fidelity to her husband, King Philip II of Macedonia. Even in texts that claimed Philip to be Alexander's real father, Nectanebus still played a key role in Alexander’s early life as his childhood mentor, teaching him how to read the stars and prophesise the future.

In the prime of his reign as pharaoh, Nectanebus was a skilled practitioner of astrology and divination. According to the Greek Alexander Romance, he would regularly procure a bronze basin of rain or spring water and would use miniature ships to predict the outcomes of sea battles. He could also influence the fate of battles by moulding wax figures of men and bringing them to life, only to sabotage the miniature boats in his water basin, meaning that the real enemy ships would sink.

Nectanebus, crowned and dressed in medieval royal attire, enchanting a bronze basin of water with two miniature ships inside.

Nectanebus in his chamber, enchanting a basin of water: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 4v

One day, to his misfortune, Nectanebus foresaw his own downfall with the invasion of Artaxerxes, and the pharaoh decided to flee, knowing that it was too late to change his fate. Nectanebus had his head shaved in disguise and he soon established himself as an Egyptian prophet in Macedonia.  

Left: Nectanebus being shaved by an attendant; Right: Nectanebus observing the stars and fleeing from Egypt on horseback.

Nectanebus being shaved, observing the stars and fleeing from Egypt: Harley MS 4979, f. 6v

Word of his wondrous prophetic skills spread in Macedonia, until Nectanebus eventually caught the attention of the beautiful Queen Olympias. She approached the prophet for advice since she had been unable to conceive an heir by King Philip, and was worried that she would be deposed and that Philip would re-marry.

Nectanebus had also supposedly read Olympias’s future, predicting that she would conceive a son by the god Ammon, who would appear to her in a dream in the form of a serpent or dragon. But this was all part of the exiled pharaoh’s deceptive plan, since that night he disguised himself as Ammon. Manuscript illuminations usually depict the seduction scene with Nectanebus as a human, embracing Olympias in bed, while a dragon watches over them, representing his serpentine disguise.

On the left, Nectanebus, dressed in courtly attire, sitting with a text in his hand and addressing a crowned Olympias; on the right, they embrace each other in bed while a dragon watches over them.

Nectanebus addressing Olympias, and embracing each other in bed while a dragon watches over them, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r

When Olympias became pregnant, she was accused of infidelity. The Legend reveals that Nectanebus salvaged her reputation by transforming into a dragon at a royal banquet, demonstrating to Philip and the slanderers that it really was the god Ammon who had visited Olympias’s bedchamber and fathered her child.

Nectanebus as a dragon approaching Olympias while she is sat with Philip and two guests at a banquet.

Nectanebus as a dragon approaching Olympias at a banquet (Paris, 1333– c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v

When Alexander the Great was born, Nectanebus was supposed to become the child’s mentor, teaching him the astrological arts. But Nectanebus soon met his tragic end. The adolescent Alexander pushed him off a cliff, mocking the fact that Nectanebus could not foresee his own death, despite claiming to be a skilled prophet.

Alexander and an attendant stand on top of a building whilst Nectanebus falls upside down to his death.

Alexander and an attendant watch while Nectanebus falls to his death: Royal MS 19 D I, f. 5v

The whereabouts of Nectanebus’s burial is unknown. In the medieval romance tradition, he was laid to rest when Alexander ordered a burial for him after finally discovering that his real father was the last pharaoh of Egypt.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth runs at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or in person, subject to availability.


Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 October 2022

A medieval best-seller: the Alexander Romance

The British Library’s major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth takes visitors on a remarkable journey through the legends and stories connected with one of the ancient world’s most renowned figures: Alexander the Great. The main source and inspiration for the stories highlighted in the show was the legendary Life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, one of the most popular texts of ancient literature.

Alexander, crowned, in a stone cylinder being carried into the sky by four giffens

Alexander ascends to heaven with griffins, in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 37r (detail)

Legends about Alexander's life, conquests and adventures had started in his own lifetime. Some stories were instigated by Alexander himself to legitimise his rule, others were spread by his soldiers and generals. The first stories were recorded in writing by Alexander’s companions, who collected their memoirs of the king’s conquests. Apart from some fragments quoted in other texts, these works are all now lost. But the stories themselves were often preserved in later histories of Alexander, such as Plutarch’s biography of him from the 1st century AD and Appian’s chronicle of his conquests from the 2nd century AD.

Extract from Harley MS 3485 showing text in red and black adn a miniature of a crowned figure

Plutarch's Life of Alexander, in the Latin translation by Guarino of Verona (Florence, 1470): Harley MS 3485, f. 367r (detail)

During his conquests, Alexander was accompanied by eminent scientists of his time. They jotted down wonders of the lands they visited, although once again only fragments of these works survive. This 2,200-year-old papyrus preserves a similar text. It talks about a legendary nation that beheaded its enemies, cut out their tongues and minced them with flour to serve as a special treat for dinner. The identification of these people is problematic but similarly gruesome stories are mentioned in Alexander’s adventures.

Papyrus fragments in a frame

An account of barbaric customs (Gurob, Egypt, 3rd century BC): Papyrus 489

The fantastical stories of Alexander, retold by historians, scientists and travellers, inspired others to fill in the gaps of the king’s life, wondering what he may have said or written in particular situations. Imagining such scenes was so popular that it was used in ancient education to teach students creative writing. This 2,000-year-old papyrus preserves such a school-text. It contains the homework of a child who was tasked to make up what Alexander would have said after he defeated Darius, the emperor of the Persians. The pupil's shaky hand devises a short speech for Alexander, in which he generously praises his dead opponent and demands a royal burial for him.


A model speech in the name of Alexander the Great (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 150–225): Papyrus 756

The most successful of these fictitious texts had a life of their own. One popular composition by an unknown author was a letter supposedly written by Alexander to his former teacher, Aristotle, about the marvels of the Eastern realms of the earth. Written originally in Greek and later translated into many languages, this letter depicts fantastic episodes faced by the Macedonian army on its long journey beyond India, featuring men with six hands, giant crabs, deadly sirens, a tooth-tyrant, and a monstrous three-horned beast that killed 26 men at once.

Text written on a manuscript roll

Beginning of Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle about the Sights and Miracles of India, preserved in a 15metre-long chronicle roll (England, possibly Battle Abbey, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Cotton Roll XIV 12, membrane 4

Around the 3rd century AD, in Alexandria, this rich array of stories, travelogues, speeches and letters was collected into one large narrative of Alexander’s life resulting in one of the most beloved books created in Antiquity — the Alexander Romance.

Alexander seated on his horse and carrying a sword while standing figures bow to him

Alexander’s entry to Rome with the senators bowing, from the earliest illuminated Greek manuscript of the Alexander Romance (Eastern Mediterranean, 13th century): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Barocci 17, f. 28v

Originally written in Greek, the Romance contains the life of Alexander coloured with extraordinary legends. It records his mythical origins from a dragon-shaped pharaoh, retelling his wise words and letters he exchanged with philosophers, politicians and kings, and the extraordinary battles he fought on land and water. It regales us with the most incredible adventures credited to Alexander, including his descent into the sea, his flight into the heavens and his encounters with monsters of the East taken from his fictitious epistle to Aristotle.

Alexander and his knights, mounted on horses, approach three headless human figures whose eyes are in their chests

Alexander facing the headless giants (Blemmydae), in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r (detail)

Soon after its composition, the text underwent incredible transformations. New stories were added to the original narrative from a variety of sources, creating an entangled network of Greek versions of the text. These variants were then translated into many of the languages of the medieval Mediterranean, from Coptic, Armenian and Syriac, through Latin, Arabic, Persian and Ethiopian, and onwards to a plethora of medieval vernaculars including French, English, German and Russian.

Brightly coloured engraving depicting figures with single legs, multiple arms, multiple heads and heads in their chests. Alexander is seated on a horse looking at the figures

'The Strange Men Found by King Alexander of Macedon', a hand-coloured engraving (Russia, c. 1820): British Museum 1934,0402.24

The British Library's Alexander the Great exhibition provides a stunning insight into the evolution of this medieval bestseller, showing how stories and legends were transmitted and adapted across two millennia. In different eyes, Alexander could be viewed as a powerful monarch, a mighty conqueror, a formidable tyrant, a wise philosopher, an inspired prophet or an all-knowing magician.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 October 2022

How King Henry VIII read the Psalter

A new exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England has recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition showcases the artistic legacy of the Tudors and reveals how England became a thriving home for the arts as the Tudor monarchs increasingly used imagery to legitimise and define the dynasty. 

Among the magnificent array of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, visitors will have the opportunity to see five items from the British Library, including Henry VIII’s personal Psalter, which has been loaned to the United States for the first time. 

King Henry's Psalter, shown open displaying a text page on the left and a miniature of Henry seated in his chamber on the right
King Henry VIII’s personal Psalter written and illustrated by Jean Mallard in 1540: Royal MS 2 A xvi, ff. 2v-3r

The Psalter was commissioned by the King himself in 1540 and written and illustrated for him by Jean Mallard, a French scribe and illuminator. It is a lavish production and is still in its original binding, which although quite threadbare, retains traces of deep red velvet. The Psalms are written in an elegant, humanist script and accompanied by exquisitely decorated initials showing birds, insects, fruit, flowers and foliage. 

But the Psalter’s true significance lies in its main illustrations, four of which depict Henry, and its annotations written by the King. Taken together, they demonstrate that by the 1540s Henry perceived himself as King David of the Old Testament who, according to tradition, composed the Psalms and whose story was used to justify Henry’s declaration of independence from Rome and to define the Royal Supremacy. It’s little wonder then that the Psalter is more heavily marked up than any other manuscript owned by the King. His copious handwritten notes provide evidence of him probing and contemplating the Psalms, eager to discover what they had to teach him in his new role as ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’. 

Visitors to the Met’s exhibition will see the Psalter displayed open at the first Psalm, which is accompanied by an image of Henry portrayed as David. He is shown sitting in his bedchamber, diligently reading and following the guidance of Psalm 1, which begins ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly … his will is in the law of the Lord.’ To reinforce the point that he considered himself one of the blessed who, as the Psalm instructs, meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, Henry commented ‘nota quis sit beatus’ (note who is blessed). 

A page from the King Henry Psalter with an illustration of the King seated in his chamber reading
Illustration showing Henry VIII studying his Psalter: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 3r

The Psalter contains another three illustrations that link Henry with King David. The second, which prefaces Psalm 26, shows David about to slay Goliath. David is recognisable as Henry, while Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who had excommunicated Henry in 1538. Contemplating this image, which represents the liberation of England from papal authority, must have given the King great satisfaction. The titulus or explanatory gloss added by Mallard in the margin reads ‘Christi plena in Deum fiducia’ (Christ’s full trust in God). One of Henry’s distinctive ‘tadpole’ signs draws attention to the words. They would certainly have resonated with Henry, who was convinced that his enemies would be sought out and destroyed because, like David, he put his trust in the Lord. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of David fighting Goliath
Henry VIII as David fighting Goliath: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 30r

Psalm 52 is accompanied by an illustration of Henry sitting in his Privy Chamber and playing a harp to identify him with the Psalmist. He is accompanied by his jester Will Somers, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades. Appearing rather dejected, the royal fool looks out of the picture towards the first verse of the Psalm, which tells us ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of the King and his jester
Henry VIII in the likeness of King David, playing the harp: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 63v

The image accompanying Psalm 68, which begins ‘Salvum me fac’ (Save me, O God), illustrates an episode in the Bible when David is forced to choose between three terrible punishments for his sinful behaviour. The image shows Henry VIII as a penitent King David, kneeling in supplication among the ruins. Mallard’s titulus, which translates as ‘In his distress Christ invokes God’, reminds the reader that David’s torment prefigures that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of King David kneeling in penitence
King David in penitence: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 79r

Several of Henry’s annotations also show him identifying with the Old Testament King and searching for guidance. One of the clearest examples is found next to Psalm 88. Using red crayon, Henry noted that the Psalm contains ‘the promise made to David’ and uses a wavy line and tadpole sign to highlight the verses ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty, and have exalted one chosen out of my people. I have found David my servant, with my holy oil I have anointed him.’ 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Psalm 88 which Henry notes contains ‘the promise made to David’: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 107v

A small number of Henry’s annotations, however, reveal more human concerns. One of the most poignant is found alongside the first half of verse 25 of Psalm 36 which reads: ‘I have been young and now I am old’. Henry, who was in his early fifties, very overweight and in poor health, must have been painfully aware that his time on earth was drawing to a close, and noted that this is ‘dolens dictum’ (a painful saying).

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Page from Henry VIII’s Psalter containing the King’s marginal comments, including top right, dolens dictum: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 45r

You can see this fascinating manuscript in person at The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England which runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 8 January 2023, or view it online at our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 October 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is now open

The British Library’s new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, invites visitors on a mythical journey across time and space. Following in the footsteps of one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, you'll encounter the many lands and legends of Alexander the Great.

DeAlexander sitting crossed legged on a throne as his bride stands in front of him

The Marriage of Alexander the Great, Firdawsi, Shahnamah, Sultanate India, 1438: Or 1403, f. 318r

Visitors to the exhibition will witness Alexander’s mysterious conception involving snakes and dragons, and will attend his birth surrounded by ominous portents of an exceptional career and a life of unparalleled adventures. The stories of Alexander’s origins are revealed through ancient objects and lavishly decorated medieval manuscripts, including the famous Talbot-Shrewsbury Book from the 15th century. This luxurious collection of legends, made for a royal patron, Margaret of Anjou (the future wife of King Henry VI of England), contains some of the most evocative illustrations of Alexander’s adventures.

The left hand image shows a man kneeling before a woman. The right hand miniature shows a couple in bed together

Alexander’s conception from Nectanebo the magician, who convinced Olympias, Alexander’s mother, that a god in the shape of a dragon would visit her in her sleep, but it was in fact he who came to her bed and fathered Alexander; in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose, the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book, Rouen 1444–45: Royal MS 15 E VI , f. 6r (detail)

Becoming the ruler of Macedon at the early age of 20, Alexander soon conquered the Balkans, marching on to attack his arch- enemy, the Persian Empire under King Darius III. After a series of battles, the two opponents faced each other in a final confrontation at Gaugamela in modern-day Iran. The battle, described in Persian poetry as a war of 'ants and locusts', inspired authors and artists across the world from the medieval West and the Middle East to the Caucasus. A strikingly dramatic representation is shown in one of the gems of the exhibition: the richly decorated Armenian version of Alexander’s legends from 1544, on generous loan from the John Rylands Library, Manchester.

A depiction of Alexander with a golden sword riding a horse A depiction of Darius III of Persia riding a horse while carrying a spear

Alexander (left) facing Darius, the Persian Emperor (right), from the Armenian Alexander Romance, Constantinople, 1544, John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester: Armenian MS 3, ff. 43v–44r

After defeating the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander marched further east. In one of his greatest military successes, he defeated the elephant-army of King Porus of India, and conquered today’s Punjab. This victorious battle is represented on an exceptional treasure, probably from Alexander’s lifetime or not much later. Known as the Porus Medallion, this silver medal, on loan from the British Museum, commemorates this triumph with a rare representation of Alexander attacking a war elephant.

The Porus Medalion. Coin showing a horse rider chasing after and elephant and rider

Alexander (left on a horse) and the bearded Porus, king of India, (right on an elephant), The Porus Medallion, Babylon(?), c. 323BC, © Trustees of the British Museum 1887,0609,1.

Alexander is famous for his desire to know and see more than anyone before him, and the legends take him beyond India to explore the marvels and wonders of the unknown realms of the world. The exhibition follows him on these fabulous journeys, as he faces giants and cannibals, fantastic beasts and monsters. We see Alexander taming the mythical griffins who will carry him to explore the sky in a flying machine. An unusual representation of this scene, on loan from the V&A, shows Alexander’s flight in exquisite metalwork, possibly from a 12th-century altar or cross.

Alexander seated in a carriage of pulled by two blue griffins. He holds a spear of meat above their heads

Alexander exploring the sky in a carriage of griffins, The Rolls Plaque, Liege 1150–1160, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.53-1988

Traversing the wonders of the East, our visitors will accompany Alexander as he consults the talking Trees of the Sun and Moon about his future. They'll follow him as he reaches Paradise but is refused admission, turning back towards Babylon to be crowned king of the world. Here we see the celebrations interrupted by bad omens. One of these is beautifully represented in a 700-year-old Persian manuscript, the earliest illustrated copy of the great Persian poet Nizami’s epic about Alexander, loaned by the Chester Beatty in Dublin.  A terror-struck Alexander examines a still- born child that is half-beast, half-human, an ominous sign that predicts his imminent death.

Alexander is seated in the middle of a crowd, He is being shown a child that has dog ears and a tail

Alexander examining the portentous child, Firdawsi, Shahnamah (Book of Kings): The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Per. 104.49

The omen was reliable: a few days later Alexander was dead. Some legends claim he was poisoned, others blame malaria and, according to new research, he may have died from alcohol poisoning. Whatever the truth, he did not rest even in death. After a fierce debate over his final resting place, Alexander's generals agreed that his body should be carried home. On the way to Macedon, his general Ptolemy hijacked the sumptuous funeral procession and took Alexander’s coffin to Egypt.

A coffin, upon which a crown is place, is carried by three men while onlookers argue

A Roman and a Persian debate the final destination of Iskandar’s coffin as it is carried from Babylon, from Fidawsi, Shahnamah, Ishafan 1640: IO Islamic 3682, f. 344

Reaching Alexandria, Egypt’s new capital founded by Alexander, Ptolemy built a magnificent tomb for the king. Although it served as a pilgrimage site for centuries, the tomb had mysteriously disappeared by the 5th century AD, never to be found again ... or had it?!?

We invite you to find out for yourselves by visiting Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Book your tickets now.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 September 2022

Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opens in Newcastle

The British Library has loaned the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, for an exhibition that runs until 3 December 2022.

The Lindisfarne Gospels open on a book cradle
The Lindisfarne Gospels on display in the Laing Art Gallery

The manuscript is displayed to show the spectacular decoration at the beginning of the Gospel of John. On the left-hand side is one of the book’s five densely painted carpet pages, all based on the shape of a cross. On this page, the decoration is centred on an equal-armed cross, filled with yellow interlace. The grid of geometric panels on the page is surrounded by a dense network of interlaced birds painted in pink, red, blue and yellow, set against a black ground. The bright green background of the four rectangular panels contrasts with the palette of the rest of the page.

A page filled with intricate animal and interlace decoration around the design of a cross
The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

On the facing page are the opening words of the Gospel of John in Latin, ‘In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum…’ (‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…’). The first three letters of the text form an intricately elaborated ‘INP’ monogram which dominates the page. Some of the letters on this page end in a spiral, interlace, or the head of a bird, but the letter ‘C’ in principio ends in the head of a man with long blond hair. Other than the portraits of the four evangelists, this is the only human depicted in the manuscript.

A page of decorated text, beginning with large ornate letters 'INP'
The beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 211r

You can read more about the Lindisfarne Gospels and see full digitised coverage of the whole manuscript on our website.

The British Library has also loaned three other manuscripts to the exhibition, including the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000), which the Library acquired in 2012 with the support of many donors including the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. It is displayed in Newcastle alongside the pectoral cross from the Staffordshire Hoard which was discovered in 2009 and is on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Leather book cover with a design of interlace and vines
The upper cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel: Add MS 89000

Also on loan from the British Library to the exhibition in Newcastle are the Tiberius Bede, containing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) and an Irish pocket gospel-book (Add MS 40618) which is displayed alongside the Mac Durnan Gospels on loan from Lambeth Palace Library.

Evangelist portrait of St Luke as a standing figure holding a book, with a border of interlaced animals
Portrait of St Luke in the Irish pocket gospel-book: Add MS 40618, f. 21v

The loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery marks the sixth loan of the manuscript and the fifth time that it has been on exhibition in the North East of England. It has been displayed twice before in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, in 1996 in the exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Lost Kingdom of Northumbria’, and again in 2000 to mark the millennium. It was also displayed in Durham Cathedral in 1987 as part of the celebrations for the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert, and in Durham University’s Palace Green Library in 2013.

The British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, Eleanor Jackson, has written a new book, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022), to coincide with the loan of the Gospels to Newcastle. The book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop, along with a new pack of 16 Lindisfarne Gospels postcards.

A bookshop display of books about the Lindisfarne Gospels
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

The Laing Art Gallery is also showing a short film which Turner-prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has produced in response to the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Newcastle. The film, entitled ‘The Deliverers’, is free to view at the Gallery this autumn.

Downstairs, in the Gallery’s Marble Hall, is the display, These Are Our Treasures. This free exhibition, featuring treasured objects belonging to people in the North East of England, is the result of a project led by artist Ruth Ewan. Each treasured object is displayed alongside an account of its story, as told by its owner.

An exhibition case containing objects with visitors looking at them
Part of the ‘These Are Our Treasures’ display at the Laing Art Gallery

The Gallery is holding a series of talks during the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, and other organisations across the North East are running a programme of events. This programme includes Illuminated Sheep in Northumberland, and an exhibition, Sharing Stories, at Newcastle City Library which focuses on modern children’s stories, and includes loans from the British Library and Seven Stories in Newcastle.

The Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle is open daily from 10.00am to 7.30pm until 3 December 2022, and tickets are available to book online.

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.

Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

18 August 2022

The man with the golden bulla

Our current Gold exhibition includes a number of the Library’s most famous treasures, but it also contains some little-known gems. One of the objects that was most fun to research is also one of the least familiar: the golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, attached to a land grant from May 1269. When I first came across this item while scoping for the exhibition, I had never seen a golden bulla before, nor had I heard of the Latin Emperors of Constantinople. But a bit of digging turned up the fascinating story of a failed emperor and his golden self-promotion.

A medieval charter with a gold seal attached to the bottom by red cords
Charter and golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365

What is a golden bulla?

In medieval Europe people authenticated documents by attaching a seal impressed with their unique design. Usually these seals were made from wax, but occasionally they were made from metals such as lead or gold. These metal seals were known as bullae (from the Latin for ‘bubble’) and were generally reserved for the most prestigious papal and imperial documents.

The use of golden bullae to seal documents is associated most closely with the Byzantine Emperors. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire which continued as a major power until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), fell to the Ottoman Empire. The golden seal, or chrysobull in Greek, was an effective emblem of Byzantine government, used by the emperor to authorise formal documents such as diplomatic correspondence, decrees of law and grants of privileges. The earliest surviving examples are from the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 866-86).

A Byzantine gold seal, showing two figures holding a military standard, with inscriptions round the edges
Gold seal of the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, depicted with his eldest son Constantine (Constantinople, 866-86) (Source: The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Some western rulers imitated the Byzantine practice of sealing important documents in gold, especially the Holy Roman Emperors. The British Library holds just one other medieval golden bulla, that of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493).

A gold seal showing a enthroned emperor, with inscriptions around the edges
Gold seal of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (Germany, 1440-1493): Seal XLIII.161

The high material value of golden bullae meant that they were frequently melted down and reused. For example, in the 11th century the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave a letter from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX to the church at Goslar, where the gold bulla was melted down to make a chalice (as recorded in the Chronicon Sanctorum Simonis et Judae Goslariense). With their restricted use and low survival rate, medieval gold bullae are extremely rare today.

Who was Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople?

The golden bulla that features in the Gold exhibition is particularly fascinating because it was not issued by a Byzantine emperor, but by a man who was pretending to be one. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, a crusader army from western Europe captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The crusaders founded a new Latin Empire of Constantinople with one of their leaders, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. His Flemish family ruled Constantinople for the next 57 years until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. The final Latin Emperor of Constantinople was Baldwin II, nephew of the first emperor and issuer of our golden bulla.

Baldwin II was born in Constantinople in 1217 and became Latin Emperor in 1228 at the age of eleven. He spent his reign struggling to hold onto power and desperately attempting to raise funds from western rulers. Perhaps his most notable legacy is that he sold one of the most holy Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns, formerly kept in Constantinople, to King Louis IX of France, who built the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to receive it. The relic was preserved at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris until the fire of 2019, when it was rescued from the blaze and moved to the Louvre.

Medieval miniature showing King Louis receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from a group of churchmen
Louis IX receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from Constantinople, Les Grandes chroniques de France (Paris, 1332-1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 395r


The Crown of Thorns
The Crown of Thorns, encased in a circular crystal reliquary of 1896, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris (Source: Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baldwin’s reign came to an end on the night of 24 July 1261 when Greek Byzantine soldiers launched a surprise attack and recaptured Constantinople. Luckily, Baldwin and many other inhabitants were rescued by the Venetian fleet. Although he spent the rest of his life in exile in western Europe, Baldwin never gave up his claim to the throne of Constantinople nor stopped using the title of emperor.

Decoding Baldwin’s golden bulla

The golden bulla at the British Library dates from after Baldwin was deposed and fled west. The charter to which it is attached was issued in May 1269 at Biervliet, a small town in the Netherlands. In it, Baldwin confirmed the grant of lands at Biervliet by his uncle, Philip I, Marquis of Namur, to the church of St Bavo in Ghent. The seal is made from two thin gold plates, each stamped with a different design, then joined together, rather like the foil on a chocolate coin. It is affixed to the document with red silk cords which pass through the interior of the bulla between the two plates.

Although the charter deals with the administration of Baldwin’s ancestral lands in Flanders, its gold seal speaks of his pretensions in Constantinople. The rare use of the golden bulla emulates Byzantine imperial practice, and the images and inscriptions reinforce Baldwin’s claim to be emperor.

The front of the seal shows Baldwin seated on a throne in full Byzantine regalia. He wears a Byzantine-style crown with pendilia (hanging ornaments) and holds the imperial sceptre and globe. He also wears a loros, an embroidered cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over the left arm. The Latin inscription reads:


(Baldwin Augustus, by the grace of God, Emperor of Romania forever).

Romania (‘the land of the Romans’) was one of the contemporary names given to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which was claimed to be the second Rome and the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.

The front of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin seated on a throne, holding the orb and sceptre and weating a crown and loros, with a Latin inscription around the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse

The reverse of the bulla shows Baldwin on horseback bearing the Byzantine crown and sceptre, perhaps as a reference to the famous equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) that stood in the main square of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Remarkably for a seal issued in the Netherlands, the inscription on this side is in Greek. It reads:


(Baldoinos despotes Porphyrogennetos Phlandras / Baldwin the Ruler, purple-born, from Flanders).

The term Porphyrogennetos (‘born in the purple’) was used to refer to individuals born legitimately to a reigning emperor. The term was said to refer to the porphyry chamber in the imperial palace of Constantinople where empresses traditionally gave birth. Baldwin’s description of himself as Porphyrogennetos emphasises his birth-right as a Byzantine emperor as well as his birth location in the imperial palace in Constantinople.

The reverse of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin on horseback with the crown and sceptre, with a Greek inscription round the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, reverse

They say that all that glisters is not gold. Baldwin’s bulla is certainly golden, but the message of imperial power it conveys is illusory. By the time it was issued, the crown of Constantinople was firmly planted on another man's head. Still, this rare object is fascinating for its cross-cultural mix of features and its insight into one man’s construction of a public persona at odds with reality.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

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