25 October 2023
Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.
The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.
A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r
You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:
Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).
Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.
We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.
The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r
In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).
A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4
Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).
The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r
Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v
Troilus and Criseyde
Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.
The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r
The Legend of Good Women
The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.
Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).
The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r
In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.
The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v
Anelida and Arcite
Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.
A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r
Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:
To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.
Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r
Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.
The Treatise on the Astrolabe
While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.
An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1
In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy.
A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622
Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.
The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r
Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.
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11 September 2018
In 1490, the curate of St Theodor in Basel, Switzerland, began compiling a register of the baptisms he performed at the church. The handwritten portion of the manuscript begins with a note in his hand: it records the year, 1490; the purpose for which the register was kept (‘ad inscribendum pueros baptisatos’); and his name, Johann Ulrich Surgant. The first entry, underlined in red, is for a baptism performed on 13 July, the feast day of St Henry (also known as Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor): a boy named Henry Falkner – after his father, it seems, rather than his beatified namesake.
Detail of the opening entries in the baptismal register of the church of St Theodor, Basel: Egerton MS 1927, f. 8r
This register was maintained at the church for a little short of 250 years, with the last entries being made in 1737. In 1620, when the volume begun by Johann Ulrich Surgant was full, a second one was acquired. These two manuscripts – Egerton MS 1927 and Egerton MS 1928 – are a valuable resource for anyone pursuing prosopographical or genealogical research for families in Basel across four centuries. You can also study them in detail on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.
Printed page from a Missale Basiliense, containing the ceremonies performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font: Egerton MS 1927, f. 7r
Surgant evidently sourced the blank volume locally. Inserted at the beginning are several printed pages from a Missale Basiliense printed by Michael Wenssler in 1488 (the British Library holds a complete copy at IB.37136; ISTC im00651500). These comprise a calendar, with the main religious feasts printed in red ink, and the ceremonies and prayers performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font. These contents were of obvious utility in such a volume and illustrate that the book was designed and acquired with this specific purpose in mind.
Front binding showing exposed oak boards, blind-stamped pigskin and metal clasps: Egerton MS 1927
The cover is characteristic of late 15th-century Swiss bindings, with blind-stamped pigskin covering a third of the front and back oak boards. Using the Einbanddatenbank, it is sometimes possible to identify the craftsman responsible, but in this case, none of the tools used on the covers of Egerton MS 1927 are a match for known binders or workshops in that region.
Detail of an entry recording the baptism of Christiana Foxe, 22 September 1555: Egerton MS 1927, f. 115r
These registers are of particular interest to anyone studying the protestant religious communities in Switzerland during the 16th century. The martyrologist John Foxe (b. 1516/17, d. 1587), of Acts and Monuments fame, spent at least four years of his exile in Basel, before returning to England in October 1559. The earliest evidence of his arrival in the city is an entry in this very register, on 22 September 1555: ‘to John Foxe, the Englander, a child, called Christiana’. Along with other Marian exiles, Foxe rented rooms in the Clarakloster, a former convent. The first of his daughter’s godparents was a fellow resident: Thomas Bentham (b. 1513/14, d. 1579), who became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield under Queen Elizabeth I.
James Freeman (Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, Cambridge University Library)
05 April 2017
Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.
Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v
This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.
A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r
Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.
‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r
Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.
‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v
A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r
Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.
A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v
However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.
Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v
Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.
Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte. Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.
Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
01 December 2016
Calendar page for December from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 12r
The calendar pages for the month of December in the Bedford Hours are filled with golden-lettered saints’ and feast days, fitting for this month of celebration.
Detail of miniatures of a man killing a pig and the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the calendar page for December, Add MS 18850, f. 12r
In November we saw pigs gorging themselves on acorns, but the day of reckoning is at hand in December. On the lower left of the first folio for this month is a miniature of a peasant about to slaughter a fattened hog, raising an enormous cudgel above his head. The hog on the ground looks slightly concerned about the situation it finds itself in (but probably not nearly enough). On the right is a lovely goat-snail hybrid sitting at east in a landscape, for the zodiac sign Capricorn.
Detail of a marginal roundel of the ‘monarche du monde’, from the calendar page for December, Add MS 18850, f. 12r
On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned and bearded man, holding an orb and a sword. He is described in the banner above him as the ‘monarche du monde’ (emperor of the world). The rubrics describe how December is ‘named from the number decem (ten)’ and is dedicated to the ’10 principal kings who the Romans had dominion over’. These ten dominions, which included Greece, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, Syria and Italy, are illustrated by the ten segments of the landscape in which the Emperor is standing (or hovering, really).
Calendar page for December, Add MS 18850, f. 12v
More on this glorious month follows. Among the remainder of the saints’ days for December (including an un-erased feast of St Thomas Becket, interestingly) are two final marginal roundel paintings. On the middle left is a scene of pleasure: in the foreground some lords and ladies are feasting while behind them two gloriously-attired knights are tilting at each other. The rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us how during the month of December ‘knights performed jousts and lived deliciously because the country was at peace’. A lovely image. The rubrics go on to describe how ‘Seneca teaches that in the month of December one should live soberly’, and the final miniature appears to depict Seneca instructing a group of men (including a king) thusly. It has to be said, however, that while Seneca’s audience appears less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm for his advice.
Detail of marginal roundels of aristocratic pleasures and Seneca speaking to people, from the calendar page for December, Add MS 18850, f. 12v
May you have a very happy December and all the best in the new year!
- Sarah J Biggs (with many thanks again to Chantry Westwell for her French translations!)
01 November 2016
Calendar page for November from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430, Add MS 18850, f. 11r
Winter is beginning to close in on the calendar pages for November from the Bedford Hours.
Detail of miniatures of a man feeding pigs and the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the calendar page for November, Add MS 18850, f. 11r
November saw a pause in the agricultural calendar of the medieval era, and so in this month we often see different sorts of labours. A common one can be found at the bottom of the first folio for this month; in the miniature on the lower left a man is at work beating acorns from a tree with two sticks. Below him a group of three hogs are feasting on the acorns, a delicacy given to them at this time to fatten them up for winter. To the right is a centaur archer, charmingly dressed in a gorgeous surcoat, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.
Detail of a marginal roundel of the Nine Muses, from the calendar page for November, Add MS 18850, f. 11r
On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a group of nine women surrounding a stream and pool of water. The banners they carry identify them as the Nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration for science and the arts that were later adopted into the Greek pantheon. In some versions of their myths they are described as water nymphs, and in one origin story they were born from four sacred rivers which Pegasus caused to spring forth — a possible explanation for the landscape of this miniature. Rubrics at the bottom of the folio tell us that November ‘is attributed to the nine wisdoms’ because of the number nine.
Calendar page for November, Add MS 18850, f. 11v
The emphasis on the Muses continues in the following folio. On the middle left an armoured man is mounted on a winged horse that has one foot (somewhat gingerly) in the waters of a fountain or pool. The rubrics tell us that this man is Perseus, and the horse must therefore be Pegasus; we may be seeing a scene of the birth of the Muses. At the bottom of the folio the Muses themselves are in evidence beside their spring, kneeling before a well-dressed lady. This is intended to represent Athena on her visit to ‘the font of wisdom’, although this aristocratic and almost matronly version of the goddess is an unusual one.
Detail of marginal roundels of Perseus and Pegasus and Athena and the Muses, from the calendar page for November, Add MS 18850, f. 11v
Sarah J Biggs
01 October 2016
Calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 10r
More emphasis on mythology and the naming of months can be found in the calendar pages for October in the Bedford Hours.
Detail of miniatures of a man sowing and the zodiac sign Scorpio, from the calendar page for October, Add MS 18850, f. 10r
Preparing for winter was the focus of most agricultural labour in the medieval era, and on the lower right of the first calendar folio we can see a peasant at work sowing seed in a barren field (barren save for the seeds, at any rate). Next to this busy man is an oddly-shaped scorpion, minus the tell-tale stinger in its tail, for the zodiac sign Scorpio.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Saturnus, from the calendar page for October, Add MS 18850, f. 10r
On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a crowned king standing before a group of seated men. This, the rubrics tell us, is Saturn, one of the oldest of the Roman gods. The verses at the bottom of the folio go on to explain that October, which is ‘named after the number eight which signifies justice’, is dedicated to Saturn, and that the time of his reign was a golden one because ‘everyone lived justly’. Saturn’s origins in the Roman pantheon are complex, but interestingly, there is a theory that his name is etymologically derived from the word satu, or ‘sowing’, fitting for a god of agriculture (and echoing the labour on the same folio).
Calendar page for October, Add MS 18850, f. 10v
A particularly charming scene can be found on the following folio. To the left of the remainder of the saints’ days for October is a marginal miniature of a woman, clad in a long blue dress and standing among trees that are shedding their leaves for fall. She holds in one hand a knife (or pair of scissors), while with the other she is gathering her blonde tresses. This is a lovely illustration of the accompanying rubrics, which tell us that in the month of October ‘the earth takes off its ornaments’. Below is a miniature of another seated man, surrounded by a group of adoring men. This, we are told, is another person to whom October is dedicated: Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
Detail of marginal roundels of the earth taking off her ornaments and Scipio Africanus, from the calendar page for October, Add MS 18850, f. 10v
Sarah J Biggs
01 September 2016
Calendar page for September from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 9r
Summer’s end is in the air in the calendar pages for September from the Bedford Hours.
Detail of miniatures of a man treading grapes and the zodiac sign Libra, from the calendar page for September, Add MS 18850, f. 9r
The heavy agricultural work of the summer begins to give way to the preparations for autumn, and this calendar page for September shows one of the most common of these preparations. On the lower left, a man is carefully treading grapes in a vat for making wine; he has removed his trousers for this messy job, but his jaunty cap remains intact. To his right is a female figure carrying a set of scales, for the zodiac sign Libra.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Palas, from the calendar page for September, Add MS 18850, f. 9r
On the middle right of the folio is a miniature of a king with a forked beard, seated in a garden. Behind him stands an angel with an open book, which is visible behind the king’s crown. This scene is only somewhat explained by the accompanying rubric, which describes how the month of September is named after the number seven, which is ‘dedicated to Palas which means wisdom’. The honorific Pallas was given to the goddess Athena, who was indeed the goddess of wisdom.
Calendar page for September, Add MS 18850, f. 9v
More details about the month of September can be found on the following folio. The first marginal roundel shows a bearded man, clad in green leaves, standing in a walled garden overflowing with plants. Above him in gold lettering is the name ‘Verto[m]pn[us]’, who the rubric tells us produces fruit ‘in the month of September’. This figure is almost certainly that of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, fruit trees, growth and gardens. At the bottom is a figure of a regal woman standing in a garden, with a bird flying directly before her. She is labelled ‘Elul’ and the rubrics go on to explain that the month of September is ‘called in Hebrew elul which means the mother of God.’ (Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar, corresponding to parts of August and September in the Gregorian system.)
Detail of marginal roundels of Vertumnus and Elul, from the calendar page for September, Add MS 18850, f. 9v
01 August 2016
Calendar page for August from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 8r
It’s a beautiful August on the pages of the Bedford Hours calendar.
Detail of miniatures of a man threshing wheat and the zodiac sign Virgo, from the calendar page for August, Add MS 18850, f. 8r
The month of August was one of heavy labour for medieval peasants, and at the bottom of the first folio for August we can see a man hard at work threshing wheat. The landscape surrounding him seems hotter and drier than in previous months, and this background is mirrored in the accompanying miniature. A young lady in blue appears to be saluting the noble peasant, for the zodiac sign Virgo.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Augustus, from the calendar page for August, Add MS 18850, f. 8r
At the bottom of the folio is a miniature that echoes that of Julius Caesar from the end of July, with a king seated on a throne, surrounded by his counsel (albeit without the treasonous murder). This is no accident, as this miniature is of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir. August was named after the said Augustus, as the rubrics tell us, for this ‘nephew of Julius wanted a month to be dedicated to him like his uncle’. And he apparently got his wish!
Calendar page for August, Add MS 18850, f. 8v
The emphasis on Caesar Augustus continues on the following folio. Adjoining the remainder of the saints’ days for August are two miniature roundels that illustrate additional episodes from the life of this Roman Emperor. At the middle left is a scene of battle; in the midst of this a gray-bearded man looks at the viewer in a similar way as the throne miniature – this may be Augustus himself. The rubrics tell us that this shows how ‘Augustus won victory from Anthony his comrade’, illustrating the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 27 BC. Following this is a miniature of company travelling on horseback, many of whom are playing trumpets adorned with banners reading ‘paix’ (peace) in gold lettering. This mirrors the rubrics yet again, which describe how Augustus ‘gave peace to the whole world in his time’.
Detail of marginal roundels of Caesar in battle and bringing peace, from the calendar page for August, Add MS 18850, f. 8v
- Sarah J Biggs
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Chaucer’s works go online
- Births, births and (more) births
- An illustrated Old English Herbal
- A Calendar Page for December 2016
- A Calendar Page for November 2016
- A Calendar Page for October 2016
- A Calendar Page for September 2016
- A Calendar Page for August 2016
- Manuscript the Tube
- A Calendar Page for July 2016