18 December 2018
The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (‘Ancient History until Caesar’) is a giant of a text. This universal chronicle, originally composed in medieval Flanders at the beginning of the 13th century, covers the ‘history’ of the world from the biblical Creation to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. There are over 90 manuscripts that contain the Histoire ancienne, including nine at the British Library, making it one of the most popular French texts of the Middle Ages. We do not know for certain the original author, but some have suggested it could be the prolific writer and translator Wauchier de Denain (fl. 1190–1210).
A marginal illustration depicting the duel of Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26r
Two exquisite manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César are now on display in the Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: a copy made in Acre (in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem) in the late 13th century, now Additional MS 15268; and an Italian copy made in Naples in the 1330s, now Royal MS 20 D I. Both are full of fascinating and lavish illuminations, and are gigantic in scope and ambition, containing over 300 folios (or 600 pages). Both of these manuscripts are available to explore on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, in addition to two other important copies of the Histoire ancienne, Additional MS 19669 and Stowe MS 54.
In the Gallery, you can see the episode where Hercules wrestles the fearsome Antaeus, a mythological giant who could only be defeated once lifted off the ground and strangled in mid-air. While modern observers might think of Hercules as a purely mythological figure, medieval writers and audiences treated him as a historical one. Hercules was viewed as an exemplar of military prowess and superhuman strength, as his marvellous victory over the giant shows. Along with Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, he was, so the text claims, one of the ‘two best knights in the world’.
In the Naples manuscript, we see Hercules grappling with his opponent against a mountainous backdrop, while a crowd of excited onlookers watch fervently from the sidelines. The image in the Acre manuscript stages the scene in two parts. On the left, the two opponents engage in battle; on the right, the moment of Hercules’ victory is captured as he finally succeeds in strangling the giant.
The duel of Hercules and Antaeus, and Hercules’ victory, last quarter of the 13th century: Additional MS 15268, f. 104v
Riotous battles and bloody duels account for a large proportion of the images in both manuscripts. The part that recounts the story of the Amazons, a legendary group of formidable warrior women who kill all their male offspring and let only their daughters survive, is often abundantly illustrated. These women come to the aid of the Trojans in the Trojan War, the ancient conflict between the Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy. In the Acre manuscript we see Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, who charges her female fighters into the Greek soldiers, but is later slain in a one-to-one encounter with Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus. Two other Amazon queens, Marpesia and Lampedo, are described in the text as ‘young women, with beautiful bodies and faces, and courageous hearts’. In the Naples manuscript we see them leading their troops whilst swinging their weapons in a visual cacophony of colour and movement.
The battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (Queen Penthesilea wears the crown): Additional MS 15268, f. 123r
The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 23v
The visual appeal of these extraordinary illuminations may well be part of the reason why the Histoire ancienne became so popular the Mediterranean. Not only were copies made in Acre and Naples, but these two manuscripts themselves travelled widely. In an unexpected turn of events, the Naples manuscript probably was sent to Spain by Joanna of Anjou (1326–1382) as part of a ransom payment to secure the release of her third husband, James IV of Majorca (c. 1336–1375). By 1380, the manuscript had arrived in Paris, where its revised version of the text — the so-called ‘Second Redaction’ — would go on to be copied in at least eight different 15th-century manuscripts.
The Naples manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the Second Redaction, which is believed to have originated in this Angevin capital. The Second Redaction fundamentally changes the nature of the historical vision of the Histoire ancienne. In this version of the text, the section based on the Old Testament is omitted, and a much lengthier account of the Trojan war is included instead. This gives it a more secular focus: instead of having biblical figures and divine creation as the starting point for a history of humankind, the Second Redaction places the pagan heroes of the Greek and Roman worlds centre stage.
The fact that this major innovation of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César took place outside of what is now known as France should lead us to think more carefully about how texts crossed borders and shaped communities in the medieval world. While French was a language of administration, it was also a language of cultural prestige. There were people proficient in French across Europe — in the Holy Land, in Italy, in Spain and elsewhere — who looked back to a shared European past that was communicated through a shared ‘Frankish’ tongue, in a lingua franca. This literary giant may well be a French text, but it was also a distinctly European one.
Half-page miniature depicting a Greek fleet: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 66v
Both manuscripts are described in more detail on a new website created as part of the European Research Council–funded project, The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages. This website also provides the first complete transcription of the Naples manuscript, Royal MS D 20 I.
As part of the project, there will be an international conference on 14–15 June 2019, exploring how history was told in different languages of the European Middle Ages. To find out more, click here. The keynote lecture, open to the public, will be given at the British Library by Robert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews. More information will be available on the British Library Events page next spring.
For more information about these manuscripts and other copies of the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blogpost. There is a useful introduction to the text on the website of the research project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside of France (2011–2015).
With thanks to Melek Karataş, Matt Lampitt and Henry Ravenhall (King's College London)
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08 November 2018
The British Library's current major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, is a treasure-trove of marvellous manuscripts and astonishing artefacts. One of those many treasures is an 8th-century manuscript known as the Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). Here we piece together its fascinating history.
The opening of Psalm 68 (‘Salvum me fac’) from the Vespasian Psalter, ?Canterbury, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 64v
The Vespasian Psalter is a wonderful witness to the ongoing processes of creation, addition and loss in a medieval manuscript. Its story begins in the second quarter of the 8th century, around the time Bede was completing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731).
Detail of the opening of the hymn ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’ by Ambrose of Milan: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 152r
It was designed from the outset as a song-book. The core part of the manuscript contains not just the Psalms but also a selection of canticles and hymns, including two written by Ambrose of Milan. These were all copied out in an elegant Insular uncial script, with headings in rustic capitals.
The opening of Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Homily on the First Psalm’, translated by Rufinus: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 2v
In the 9th century, several leaves were added to accommodate supplementary material. The manuscript henceforth was prefaced by Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm 1, epistles between Jerome (the Psalms’ translator) and Pope Damasus I, and various texts relating to the origin, division, performance, interpretation and ordering of the Psalms. These were all designed to expand upon the core of the manuscript and facilitate its use and study.
Psalm 151 (‘Pusillus eram’): Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 141r
Jerome translated the Psalms not from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Bible, but from the Septuagint (Greek) version. Itself a translation from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint remains the preferred text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The numbering adopted by the two versions is slightly different, primarily as a consequence of differing interpretations of how certain psalms should be divided. The Septuagint also includes an additional Psalm, numbered 151, not found in the Hebrew text. In the Vespasian Psalter, a single leaf was inserted between the end of Psalm 150 and the beginning of the first canticle to make space for its inclusion.
Detail of Anglo-Saxon neumes added to the end of Psalm 150 (‘Laudate dominum in sanctis eius’), with an additional noted line and explicit: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 140v
Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148–150, to provide a guide for their chanting, with Anglo-Saxon neumes added at the end of verses and half-verses.
It is not known who was responsible for instigating or executing each of these additions to the manuscript. However, the hands of two scribes who were intimately connected with Canterbury have been identified in the Vespasian Psalter, shedding light not only on its continued augmentation but also on a curious blip in its provenance.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 94 (‘Deus ultionum’) with interlinear Old English gloss: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 90r
The first scribe is known as the Royal Bible Master Scribe, after his role in Royal MS 1 E VI, and his hand is known in other manuscripts from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Around the second quarter of the 9th century — amidst the other supplementary activities in the manuscript — he added an interlinear Old English gloss to the Psalms. It has the distinction of being the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.
Hymn and Athanasian Creed, copied by Eadwig Basan, with a later Old English gloss: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 155r
The second scribe is known by name: Eadwig Basan. He added several texts to the manuscript two centuries later: another hymn (for matins on Sunday), the Athanasian Creed, an Oratio by Eugenius of Toledo, and a confession prayer by Alcuin. These in turn were given an Old English gloss shortly afterwards, bringing them into line with the rest of the volume.
Full-page miniature of St Benedict and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1012x1023: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
Knowledgeable readers will have spotted that Eadwig’s name is usually associated not with St Augustine’s Abbey, but its neighbour Christ Church, Cathedral. His hand has been identified in several Christ Church books: most notably his eponymous Psalter (Arundel MS 155), in which he may be the figure prostrate at the feet of St Benedict in a full-page miniature; the Harley Psalter (with two other scribes, Harley MS 603) and the Cnut Gospels (an addition on f. 44v; Royal MS 1 D IX). He is famously memorialised with a full-page portrait of him at work in another Psalter that bears his name (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1).
Full-page miniature of David and the musicians (described by Thomas of Elmham in his history): Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v
The circumstances in which Eadwig made his additions to the Vespasian Psalter are not known. Whether he went to St Augustine’s or the book to Christ Church, it is clear that the Vespasian Psalter was at St Augustine’s for several further centuries. Thomas of Elmham’s history of St Augustine’s, written in the mid- to late 1410s and preserved in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 1, described a Psalter that was kept on the high altar of the abbey church — a Psalter whose description exactly matches the present manuscript.
Two canticles, with the off-print from a missing carpet page: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 142r
Following the dissolution of St Augustine’s in 1538, the Psalter found its way into the hands of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The manuscript had suffered losses in the interim. The opening few leaves of the Psalms were gone; Elmham’s description indicates that they contained a depiction of Samuel, perhaps in the form of a full-page miniature at the opening of the text. A carpet-page also once adorned the manuscript: all that remains is a shadowy, cruciform off-print on f. 142r.
Detail of a letter written by Matthew Parker to William Cecil, 24 January 1565/66: Lansdowne MS 8, f. 190r (formerly item 73)
Cecil lent the book to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Although Parker dutifully returned it in 1566, his desire to keep it is obvious: in the accompanying letter, he dropped a hint to that effect, writing to Cecil that the Psalter is ‘remitted again to your library: in the riches whereof, videlicet of such treasures, I rejoice as much as they were in my own’. Parker lamented the losses at the opening of the Psalms and described to Cecil how he would have had them made good, had the manuscript been his: moving the miniature of David (f. 30v) to the beginning and having the missing text ‘counterfeited in antiquity’ (i.e. copied to resemble the Insular uncial used for the Psalms).
Charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, England, 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3
It was Robert Cotton — who acquired the manuscript in 1599, a year after Cecil’s death — who addressed these deficiencies in his own unique way. He first inserted a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, and trimmed its edges so that it would fit. Cotton’s rationale (it seems) was that the charter provided a further example of Insular uncial. He may also have suspected, but cannot have known, that the charter was closely contemporary to the Vespasian Psalter’s production, being dated to 736.
Christ in Majesty, from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1r
Full-page foliate initial ‘B’ inhabited by men and animals, from Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1v
At some juncture this charter was removed (it is now Cotton MS Augustus II 3) and in its place was put a leaf from the beginning of an English Psalter of c. 1220. On one side is Christ in Majesty and on the other a large decorated initial B and the opening words of the first Psalm. This is a better fit with the content, if not the decorative style, of the rest of the manuscript.
Detail of a cutting containing the coat of arms of Margaret of York impaled with those of her husband Charles the Bold, with her motto (‘Bien en aviegne’) and their initials ('CM'), by the Master of Mary of Burgundy illuminator, from the Breviary of Margaret of York: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 160v
Cotton made a further incongruous addition at the end of the manuscript: he pasted in a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York. Other excisions from this late 15th-century devotional book are present in other Cotton manuscripts – Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 1r–1v, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 2r, and Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r – and the much-mutilated remnant survives as Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.13.
Fragment of Psalm 2 and opening of Psalm 3 (‘Domine, quid multiplicati sunt’), and the inscription of Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r
The Vespasian Psalter escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731 completely unscathed — but by that time, as we have seen, it was in far from its original state. It is remarkably well-preserved for a book that is close to 1300 years old, but its life was demonstrably one of use and re-use: its developing role in the liturgy, its reading and translation, its decoration, and its mutilation and repair. It is the involvement of so many hands in the manuscript over so many centuries that has given it such a textured and fascinating history.
You can see the Vespasian Psalter with your own eyes in the once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display at the British Library in London until 19 February 2019.
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22 August 2018
The elegaic Livre des Quatre Dames
In this poem by Alain Chartier (d. c. 1433), an ambassador for King Charles VII of France, the poet meets four ladies, who tell of the fates of their four lovers who were lost at the battle of Agincourt. One lover was killed, one lost, one taken prisoner and one fled. This manuscript is believed to have been commissioned by Anne de Laval (d. 1466) of the Montmorency-Laval family of Brittany and Maine, supporters of the French king. Their coat of arms can be found in the initial on f. 1r.
The poet with the four ladies, from the Livre des Quatre Dames, France, c. 1425: Add MS 21247, f. 1r
The romantic Guiron le Courtois
The legend of Guiron is part of the Arthurian cycle, dealing with the exploits of earlier generations of heroes, the ancestors of Tristan, Erec and the knights of the Round Table (including Palamedes and Meliadus). On this page, a historiated initial signals the beginning of the adventures of ‘Brehus sans pitie’, who meets Guiron’s grandfather in a cave. From him he hears the whole history of Guiron’s lineage, and of his exploits at the castle of Malaonc, where he befriended Lord Danyn the Red and fell in love with his wife, the Lady of Malaonc, the most beautiful woman in Britain. Later, they both fell in love with the Lady Bloye and Guiron first defeated Danyn, then rescued him from a dragon.
Brehus finds a knight lying dead in a beautiful chamber, from Guiron le Courtois, northern Italy, 14th century: Add MS 36880, f. 40v
The gruesome German Missal
This early 15th-century Missal was produced for the Use of Cologne, as is indicated by the calendar and the offices in honour of St Severin, archbishop of Cologne. It contains 7 full-page miniatures of Rhenish execution, and added on single folios, seemingly inserted at random in relation to the text. This image of the 10,000 martyrs probably illustrates the medieval legend of the Roman soldiers, led by St Acacius, who converted to Christianity and were crucified on Mount Ararat by the King of Persia by order of the Roman emperor. They appear to be males, but the calendar of saints includes the feast of the 11,000 virgin-martyrs of Cologne, legendary companions of St Ursula, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the 12th century, was the daughter of the ruler of Cornwall.
The Ten Thousand Martyrs, from a Missal, Cologne, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Egerton MS 3018, f. 43r
The mysterious Biblia Pauperum
This manuscript consists of a series of black outline drawings. Every second page has a large drawing of a subject relating to Christ’s Passion at the top; below this are two drawings, usually of subjects from the Old Testament; and beneath are two further drawings of the habits of animals, including snakes, birds, dogs, wild boars, fish, an owl, an elephant and a peacock, based on classical authors. Surrounding them are busts of human figures, including prophets. On the facing pages are corresponding texts and quotations in Latin, with explanatory comments.
Christ is scourged, with other images including a figure tied to a tree, a wild boar being slaughtered, and a figure harvesting acorns, from the Biblia Pauperum, ?Germany, 2nd half of the 15th century: Add MS 15705, f. 10r
The horticultural Carrara Herbal
This herbal is a luxury copy created for Francesco Carrara II, Lord of Padua, rather than a practical, medicinal manual. Based on Arabic compilations that were translated into Latin, this treatise written in the Paduan dialect describes the medicinal properties of plants, animals, and minerals. It is accompanied by numerous illustrations of plants that appear more decorative than scientific.
Illuminated initial and a plant illustration from the Carrara Herbal, northern Italy (Padua), c. 1400: Egerton MS 2020, f. 11v
The historical Chronicles of Matthew Paris
This mid-13th century St Albans’ manuscript contains a collection of chronicles and historical material, including the Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie, compiled and copied in part by Matthew Paris himself. At its beginning is a collection of 32 portraits of English monarchs and other historial figures from Britain. It once included Matthew Paris’s full-page map of Britain, now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1.
Utherpendragon, Æthelberht, Arthur and St Oswald, in the chronicles of Matthew Paris, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 218v
For the other manuscripts recently added to Digitised Manuscripts, please see our previous blogpost, A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1).
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17 August 2018
The summer holidays may be here but we have been busy at the British Library, adding more items to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here are some of the highlights.
The beautiful: a Spanish Book of Hours
This gorgeous Book of Hours, about the size of a modern paperback, contains 10 full-page miniatures — attributed to Juan de Carrion, an artist associated with Toledo — and 14 illuminated initials, with full borders in glorious pinks, blues and greens. They are decorated with an amazing variety of flowers, birds and all manner of creatures. This is one of eight stunning illuminated manuscripts acquired from the collector and philanthropist, Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864–1958) of Lee and Perrins, the makers of Worcester sauce. They include the Gorleston Psalter, the de Brailles Hours and the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen.
The Circumcision of Christ, from a Book of Hours, Spain, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 50004, f. 41v
The bejewelled: Isocratis de Regno
These two works by Isocrates and Lucian were translated by Johannes Boerius or Giovanni Battista Boerio (d. before 1530), for Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII. Boerio was astrologist and physician to Henry VII, and this copy was made for him in Italy by Pierantonio Sallando. It contains gold borders with jewelled decoration at the beginning of each text. Lucian’s work, usually known as De calumnia, is titled Non facile credendum esse calumniate (‘On not believing rashly in slander’), good advice for a young monarch, but not necessarily followed by Henry VIII later in his reign, particularly with regard to the treatment of his wives.
The opening page of Lucian, De calumnia, with a border incorporating the arms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, supported by the dragon and greyhound, and in the border, phoenixes and leopards, and numerous all'antica elements such as vases, cornucopia, and jewels with foliate motifs, northern Italy (Bologna), c. 1505: Add MS 19553, f. 19r
The fabulous: the Spalding manuscript
This collection of Old French texts contains a rare copy of Le Songe Vert, accompanied by a chanson de geste, two classical romances and the Ordene de Chivalrie, a set of instructions on chivalry allegedly given by Hue de Tabarie to Saladin. Le Songe Vert is a 14th-century allegorical poem, written in the Picard dialect and described by its early editor, Leopold Constans, as a ‘curieux poeme’. At the end of the plague of 1347–48, the author dons a black mourning dress and wanders into an orchard. He is consoled by a vision of love and returns with his dress a bright green. You may wonder why this volume is known as the 'Spalding manuscript': its name refers to a previous owner, Maurice Johnson (1815–1861) of Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, in Lincolnshire.
The opening page of Le Songe Vert, from the Spalding manuscript, France, 14th century: Add MS 34114, f. 227r
The weird: Liber Belial
The Liber Belial or Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum takes the form of a lawsuit between Lucifer and Jesus Christ, with Solomon presiding. The Devil sues Christ for trespass by descending into Hell. A note on f. 2v states that the text was written on 30 October 1382 at Aversa, near Naples; it is dedicated to Angellus de Castellone of Arezzo, archpriest of Padua.
The opening page of the Liber Belial, Naples, 1382: Harley MS 3134, f. 3r
The boastful: the life and genealogy of Edward IV
For any aspiring medieval ruler intent on vaunting their prowess and legitimate claim to the throne, a connection to biblical antecedents was an absolute must. In this roll five pairs of large coloured miniatures each show an event in the career of King Edward IV on the right, with its biblical type or precedent on the left. It provides an allegorical representation of Edward's success and the fulfilment of the prophecies that he would attain the throne. To crown it all, his genealogical tree below is in the form of a biblical tree of Jesse (traditionally portraying Christ’s descent from King David), and shows Henry III reclining at the bottom, with Edward IV and Henry VI emerging as opponents at the top.
The life and genealogical tree of King Edward IV, England, 1461–c. 1470: Harley MS 7353, f. 1r
The wonderful: Ovide moralise and other French texts
In this French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is illustrated the legend of the ill-fated lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Here they are shown at their secret meeting place under a mulberry tree. Pyramus, believing Thisbe to have been killed by a lion, has fallen on his sword and lies dead. Thisbe is about to plunge his sword into her throat. As a result, the gods changed the colour of mulberries to red to honour their forbidden love. This manuscript also contains Christine de Pizan's L'Epistre Othea, in which Hector, prince of Troy, is tutored in statecraft and political morality by Othea, the goddess of wisdom.
Pyramus and Thisbe beside a fountain, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, southern Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r
We are adding new content to Digitised Manuscripts every week. A second blogpost will describe some of the other recent additions: keep your eyes peeled!
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29 July 2018
In Chaucer’s famous opening line to the Canterbury Tales, ‘Aprille with his shoures soote’ (April with its sweet showers) was the time when people longed to set off on their travels. Of course, holidays as we know them were not enjoyed by medieval folk. The word itself comes from ‘Holy Days’ in the Church calendar, when a break from daily routine usually involved praying and fasting, not sunbathing and drinking cocktails on the beach. But people have always enjoyed visiting new places, and so pilgrimages were a popular way of taking a break at the same time as showing piety and atoning for one’s sins — a great all-inclusive package!
One medieval pilgrim was St Roch, who tended plague victims. He is usually pictured in typical pilgrim’s garb, with the staff, scrip or bag and shell (the symbol of Santiago and all pilgrims) on his hat. When he caught the plague himself, he was healed by a hunting dog who licked his wounds and brought him bread.
Miniature of Roch, showing a plague-spot on his thigh, with an angel and a dog holding a loaf, from the Prayer-book of Joanna of Ghistelles, Ghent, c. 1516: Egerton MS 2125, f. 209v
Instead of backpacking in Thailand, booking a package holiday to the Costa Brava or braving the traffic jams to the English seaside, medieval pilgrims headed for Palestine, northern Spain or Kent. Some of the leading destinations for English pilgrims were Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
The holy places in Palestine were the ultimate destination for medieval Christian pilgrims, although the journey could be arduous. Margery Kempe, the famous English mystic, travelled from Norfolk to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413–15, as recounted in her autobiography. Even kings could be pilgrims, including Louis IX of France: when on crusade to the Holy Land in 1251, he went on a pilgrimage from Acre to Nazareth on the Feast of the Annunciation.
Travellers to distant places needed maps. This plan of Jerusalem is found in a book of maps and sea charts, produced in Venice. It shows the holy sites including David's Tower, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, Pilate's house, St Anne's house and the Temple of Solomon.
Plan of Jerusalem in Pietro Vesconte’s book of charts, maps and plans, Venice, c. 1331: Add MS 27376*
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
This city in northern Spain is believed to be the resting place of St James, one of the twelve apostles. According to legend, James went to Spain to spread the Gospel before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded. His friends placed his head and body in a boat, which miraculously carried them to the Galician coast. After suffering trials and persecutions at the hands of local pagans, they finally buried his remains on a hill (now the site of the famous cathedral of Santiago), where they lay forgotten for many centuries. The cult of St James was revived in the 7th and 8th centuries when Christianity in Spain was under threat from Muslim expansion. St James allegedly appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the Milky Way: the name Compostela is believed to derive from the Latin campus stellae (field of stars).
Charlemagne pointing the way to Spain, from the Chroniques de France, Paris, 1st half of the 14th century: Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 166r
The first known pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela was Gotescalc, bishop of Puy in France, who visited the shrine in 950. The Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, went on pilgrimage there in 1097. By the 12th century, half a million pilgrims were travelling from as far as Scandinavia, England and southern Italy, and hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges had been built to accommodate them. A pilgrims’ guide, the Liber Sancti Iacobi, was produced, listing the towns along the way, providing useful phrases in Basque to use when travelling through that region, and warning pilgrims against certain local foods and customs.
St James, in the Liber Sancti Jacobi, Santiago?, 1st half of the 14th century: Add MS 12213, f. 3v
The Camino de Santiago is now a very popular pilgrimage route, with many walking from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées, a journey of six weeks. Getting there and back is much easier than in the Middle Ages, when most people walked or rode on horseback. The ‘Camino Ingles’ (English Way) has starting points at the ports of La Coruña and Ferrol, where medieval pilgrims arrived by boat from Britain.
Pilgrimage to Canterbury
Pilgrims came from all corners of Europe to worship at Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights on the evening of 29 December 1170. In this compilation of Becket’s letters, accompanied by John of Salisbury's account of his life and death, is an image showing the martyrdom in four narrative scenes. The upper two depict Becket at table, being told of the knights' arrival. The lower sections show Becket’s martyrdom in the church and the later veneration of his shrine by four kneeling figures.
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r
Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled from Southwark in London to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The routes from London and Winchester remain popular with modern pilgrims, passing through the Sussex and Kent countryside.
Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes, London, c. 1457–1460: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r
Many people like to watch travel programmes on television, seeing places we may never visit. Some people were unable to go on pilgrimage, but they could make a spiritual journey using guides or maps. Numerous medieval versions of the allegorical pilgrimage were written for this purpose, where the pilgrim had to overcome various obstacles to reach the final goal of spiritual fulfilment. In this French text, the pilgrim is guided by the lady Grace-Dieu.
The pilgrim is given his bag by Grace-Dieu, from Guillaume Deguilleville, Les Trois Pèlerinages, France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120, f. 28r
Matthew Paris’s famous itinerary of the route to Jerusalem is considered to be a guide for a spiritual rather than a real journey from London to the Holy Land, as he does not provide distances or practical details. As far as we know, Matthew never made the journey himself, instead learning of the route from travellers who passed through St Albans Abbey in the 13th century. The first part of his plan shows the journey from London in the lower left-hand column to Dover and then, in the right-hand column, from Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast to Beauvais. Each place is one day’s journey from the preceding one.
Section of an illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, from London to Beauvais, St Albans, 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r
In the medieval world, animals also went on pilgrimage. Here is an example from the Smithfield Decretals.
A rabbit shooting at a dog who is dressed as a pilgrim, from the glossed Decretals of Gregory IX (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), Toulouse?, late 13th or early 14th century: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 57v
In this collection of animal tales in German, a fox, having grown old and setting off on a pilgrimage, refuses the companionship of the watch-dog, wild ass, bear, lion, peacock, wolf, pig and mule. Instead, he chooses to travel with the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, the young hound and the ant (let’s hope someone offers the ant a ride!).
A fox choosing its companions for a pilgrimage, from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Salzburg, c. 1430: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r
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19 July 2018
For the past twenty-five years, thousands of medievalists from around the world have travelled every July to the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the United Kingdom’s largest academic conference and one of the largest global gatherings of medievalists. With nearly 3,000 participants this year, the IMC provided the perfect opportunity for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project team to showcase their work ahead of its official launch in November.
On the morning of 3 July, the project’s cataloguers, Laura Albiero and Francesco Siri from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Cristian Ispir from the British Library, presented research on manuscripts in the project, highlighting aspects which have benefitted particularly from the availability of digital images. Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, everyone will soon be able to access 800 medieval manuscripts online.
Laura’s paper gave examples of the project’s liturgical manuscripts, and discussed how the names of different saints in the calendars help us to trace the origin and movement of individual manuscripts across the Channel. Erasures and additions tell their own tale of changing ownership through analysis of the veneration of particular local saints.
Laura Albiero discussing a calendar originally from 12th-century Tewkesbury, now Paris, BnF, Latin 9376.
Cristian followed with an overview of author portraits and decorative elements in manuscripts containing Classical Latin texts. Francesco’s presentation focused on diagrams and their use in texts such as philosophical works, and defined the different functions they perform.
Cristian Ispir and Francesco Siri presenting on the visual content in some of the project manuscripts.
The second session presented by the team gave an overview of the project itself. Tuija Ainonen, The Polonsky Foundation Project Curator at the British Library, drew attention to The Polonsky Foundation and the roles of the two project partners. She highlighted the various goals of the project: the full digitisation of 800 manuscripts (400 from the British Library and 400 from the BnF); the publication of a book highlighting selected manuscripts from the project; and the building of two websites — one hosting all 800 manuscripts, with 260,000 digitised images in total, and another bilingual interpretative site for a wide public audience which will present a selection of manuscripts in the project. Even interoperable image viewers, annotations, and the plan to allow image downloads had their few minutes in the spotlight: see this earlier blogpost for more details.
The project’s coordinators Tuija Ainonen and Francesco Siri at the discussion and question time.
The audience then saw the different stages in the digitisation of 800 manuscripts and online publication in various forms. In this evening session Francesco Siri discussed the demands and challenges of cataloguing and conservation in digitisation projects. Alison Ray, Curatorial Web Officer at the British Library, discussed the workflow, from photography and image processing through to presentation in various online environments including social media and the bilingual interpretative website that will launch in November. She also reminded the audience that 600 project manuscripts are already fully digitised and available via Digitised Manuscripts for the British Library and Gallica for the BnF.
Alison Ray discussing the various digital environments for showcasing selected manuscripts.
As the project is ongoing, the IMC presentation was very much a sneak preview of things to come. Our readers will be able to see the full outcomes at our project conference in Paris in 21–23 November 2018. Attendance is free but registration is required.
You will also be able to see some of the project’s manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition that opens at the British Library on 19 October. To hear more about Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, you can also attend a conference and early career symposium at the British Library on 13–15 December.
The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
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23 June 2018
Europe and the Sea, a new exhibition in Berlin, explores the fundamental role played by the sea in the history and development of Europe. On loan to the exhibition is a British Library manuscript describing an expedition by two French knights, Gadifer La Sale and Jean de Béthencourt, to conquer the Canary Islands in 1402. It contains the Conquête et les conquérants des Iles Canaries, a chronicle of the journey and exploration of the islands, as recorded by Pierre Boutier and Jehan le Verrier, military chaplains to the expedition. There are several surviving accounts, but Egerton MS 2709, dated to before 1420, is believed to be closest to the events, and may have been copied under the supervision of Gadifer himself for an important patron, perhaps the Duke of Burgundy.
Account of the arrival at La Goumera island, from the Conquête et les Conquérants des Iles Canaries, Paris, c. 1405 (after 1404 and before 1420): Egerton MS 2709, f. 19r
This chronicle describes several clashes with the local inhabitants. On the page shown above, Gadifer sailed around the islands and passed the ‘isle d’Enfer’ (meaning ‘Hell Island’, now called El Hierro), arriving at the ‘isle de la Goumere’ (La Goumera) at night. There the French sailors went ashore in a small boat and captured a man and three women who were making fires on the beach, bringing them back to the ship. The next morning they sent a party to find fresh water and, unsurprisingly, the local people attacked them and forced them to retreat.
Description of El Hierro Island: Egerton MS 2709, f. 19v
On the next page the adventurers set sail for Palma, but were driven ‘by a great storm’ back to El Hierro, where they stayed for three weeks. They discovered ‘great numbers of pigs, goats and sheep’ and, while the coast was rather barren, the interior was ‘fertile and pleasant’ with ‘more than a hundred thousand pine trees’ and an abundance of quails. By 1405, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro had been conquered, although the larger islands like Tenerife put up greater resistance.
Knights sailing to conquer the Canaries, attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop: Egerton MS 2709, f. 2r
On the first page of the manuscript is a striking image of a ship crowded with armed knights, with an elaborate initial and decorative border. The ship, which has been compared to a late Viking vessel in design, has flags at the masthead and at the prow and stern, as well as two shields bearing the arms of Gadifer La Sale, one of the French commanders. The arms of Jean de Béthencourt do not appear, but the arms on one of the flags at the stern have been partially erased, so it is possible that they were his. The illumination has been attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames, who worked on some of the most beautiful manuscripts in the British Library's collections, including the Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850), a copy of the Bible Historiale made for Charles de Valois (1446–1472), duke of Normandy, now in two volumes (Add MSS 18856 and 18857), a collection of works by Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431) and Giovanni Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes (Royal MS 20 C IV).
The exhibition, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin from 13 June 2018 to 6 January 2019, views Europe as a maritime continent, showing the sea's fundamental role as a route of conquest, a resource, and a place of imagination and memory for Europeans through the ages.
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21 June 2018
To mark midsummer, that most magical of days, we have another exciting update from The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. In a ground-breaking collaboration, the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have now digitised and published online 600 out of the selected 800 manuscripts. The remaining 200 manuscripts will be made available later this year. To get an idea of the range of manuscripts included so far, we have compiled a list (available in PDF and Excel formats) containing shelfmarks and titles, along with links to view the manuscripts in either Digitised Manuscripts at the BL or Archives et manuscrits at the BnF.
PDF format: Download BL_BnF_600_PolonskyPre1200Project_MSS
Excel format: Download BL_BnF_600_Project_MSS
St Benedict and monks, in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
Our project explores five hundred years of intellectual activity and manuscript production in both France and England. As we move rapidly towards the grand finale in November, here’s a brief recap of what is still to come. In November we launch:
A new joint project viewer to all 800 manuscripts: The project manuscripts will be presented in a new Mirador based viewer being developed by the BnF. The images will be presented in an internationally agreed standard format known as IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework-format). This means that it will be easier to view and share images from different collections. In the new viewer, you will be able to view multiple manuscripts from either library side by side and therefore virtually unite manuscripts from the collections of the two libraries. You will also be able to download an individual image or a pdf of an entire manuscript.
A new interpretative website, Medieval England and France, 700-1200: We are also developing a new website, hosted by the British Library, which will feature articles and short films about the manuscripts. These will focus on a wide range of themes, such as history, medicine, music and art. We’ll include interviews with leading experts and several short clips on the various stages of illumination, commissioned from a modern artist and calligrapher. This website will be a virtual exhibition area to explore a selection of our collections, and everything will be presented in both English and French.
Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art from England and France 700-1200: In addition, we are preparing a book that will present some of the most impressive illuminated manuscripts in the project, illustrated with over 70 full-page colour illustrations. In Medieval Illumination we will alternate between manuscripts made in England and in France in order to present the similarities and differences between the art produced in each country. This book too will be translated and published in French. Both versions will be available by the opening of the Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition on 19 October (see below), as a number of project manuscripts will be featured in both the book and the exhibition.
Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: BnF MS latin 11685, f. 5v
Other Upcoming Events:
International Medieval Congress 2018, 2–5 July, Leeds: We will be presenting a live update of the project at the Leeds IMC 2018. On Tuesday, 3 July, members of the project teams from both libraries (Laura Albiero, Cristian Ispir and Francesco Siri) will present new research on selected project manuscripts (session 638 at 11:15am). In the evening round table session (with Tuija Ainonen, Alison Ray and Francesco Siri) we will discuss the project itself, the work we do and the different resources we are in the process of creating. This will also be a great opportunity to ask questions or offer comments on this historical collaborative venture (session 938 at 7pm).
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Our readers will also have an opportunity to view some of the original manuscripts in person as a number of them will feature in the upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The exhibition will be open from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019 in the PACCAR gallery at the British Library.
France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 conference: We’ll also be holding a three-day conference in Paris to celebrate the project launch, and to present more new research on manuscripts included in the project. Mark your calendars for 21–23 November 2018 in Paris at the Auditorium Colbert (2 Rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris).
The entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper: Arundel MS 157, f. 8v
Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference, London: To coincide with the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on 13–14 December 2018, the Library is holding a two-day international conference with papers by leading scholars in the fields of history, literature and art history. This will be followed by a one-day symposium for early career researchers on 15 December 2018. Several of the manuscripts digitised as part of the project will be featured in the conference and symposium papers. Delegates are invited to a reception and private view of the exhibition on 13 December.
Blogs: We will be continuing to blog about interesting manuscripts in the project on both the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, and on Manuscripta. For inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200).
The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
In collaboration with
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