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
14 July 2016
Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk.
It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.
Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and 'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010.
Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance.
Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles.
A Run-Down of Our Favourites
Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r
Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v
Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v
@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f. 34 v
And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r
Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.
We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.
Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.
And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497.
C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v
I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound.
Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v
Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here.
Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras, by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).
Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- 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
- ‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks