Medieval manuscripts blog

865 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

14 August 2022

Gold galore in the Harley Golden Gospels

Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.

The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them. 

A detail of the gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, taken at an angle so it catches the light
A detail of gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, the Carolingian Empire, c.800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Golden writing

While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.

A text page, written in two columns of gold script, with a patterned frame
Text page with decorated gold border from the Harley Golden Gospels: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Canon Tables

Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen. 

Canon tables, lists of numbered passages from the Gospels inside an ornately decorated architectural frame
Canon tables with decorated gold columns and symbols of the four Evangelists: an angel, a lion, an ox and an eagle: Harley MS 2788, f. 6v

Title Page

The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.

Title page with a roundel containing an inscription announcing the four Gospels written in silver and gold ink, surrounded by plants and animals
Title page in gold and colours with a full border, Harley MS 2788, f. 12v

Evangelist portraits

Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.

Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 13v-14r

Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering. 

Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 71v-72r

The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 108v-109r

The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).

Frontispiece to John’s Gospel
Frontispiece to John’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 161v-162r

With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

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

09 August 2022

Breaking the news of the fall of Richard II

The oldest item in the British Library’s current Breaking the News exhibition (open until 21 August 2022) is an account of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. This small pamphlet is the earliest surviving example of printed news in Britain, but of course written records of contemporary events and experiences survive from ancient times, and from many parts of the world.

Page with printed image of an army with spears behind a hill, and a soldier handing a message to a king in front of a pavilion
An illustrated account of the Battle of Flodden, ‘Hereafter ensue the trewe encountre of batayle lately don betwene Engla[n]de and Scotlande etc’., Richard Fa[w]ques [1513].

A key focus of the current exhibition is the biases revealed in the way news is reported. Though they may not have been as immediate, or intended for circulation in the same way that news is today, medieval historical chronicles are evidence of the way events were seen and recorded by eyewitnesses at the time or shortly afterwards. The material that writers of chronicles chose to include or omit can tell us as much about their viewpoints and opinions as the contents themselves. An example of this is the story of capture of King Richard II of England (r. 1377 – 1399) in 1399, his mysterious death soon afterwards, and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV of England (r. 1399 – 1413).

In the later Middle Ages, those in power in England and on the Continent were keen to own books about the history of their dynasties, and some of these include reports of near-contemporary events. The fall of Richard II is recorded and illustrated in a number of histories and chronicles produced shortly after the event. One of these is a work by Jean Creton in rhyming French, the La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard II), devoted purely to the subject.

A group of noblemen in a castle with turrets, with one kneeling holding a sceptre before a figure in a red robe; knights guard the gate; text beneath
Richard II meets Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 50r

Jean Creton, a historian and poet who was sent in April 1399 by King Charles VI of France to accompany Richard II on a military expedition to Ireland, gave an eyewitness account of the capture of the king at Flint Castle in August 1399 and was commissioned by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to write this record. In his account, Jean condemns Henry’s treasonous acts, and those of his supporters, and calls for a response from the French, Flemish, Germans and Bretons.

Seven copies survive, of which only this one (Harley MS 1319), formerly owned by the Duc de Berry, brother of the French king, is illustrated. The dramatic miniatures provide an eyewitness perspective and guide the audience’s interpretation. For example, bright costumes are used to identify the key characters and their ranks.

A figure in a red robe is led by a bearded figure in a tall hat and spurs towards a group of figures with swords in front of a city gate; knights with pikes stand behind
Richard II is delivered to the citizens of London, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 53v

 

Seated robed men and women on either side of a red throne are presented to a man in a blue and gold garment
Henry IV is recognized as king by parliament, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 57r

A comprehensive account of events surrounding the deposition of Richard II was also recorded by Jean Froissart (c.1337- c.1405), a courtier and historian who worked in England and the Low Countries. His Chroniques deal mainly with events in England, France and Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. Froissart, perhaps wary of alienating the new king, does not take sides by attributing the murder to Henry IV.

A king in ermine receives a sceptre from a man in a grey garment before a throne in a palace; courtiers watch and two seated men read from scrolls
Richard resigning the crown; the funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 401v

Froissart’s Chroniques end in 1400 and the last episode illustrated in this copy is Richard II’s funeral, though the text itself ends with a dispute in 1400 between the Pope, the king of France and the citizens of Liege, in which Froissart tells how the latter threatened to throw any further messengers sent by the Pope into the River Meuse! At this point, aged around 63, he ended his chronicle but it remained a popular historical work, with copies like this one being made in the late 15th century and beyond.

This copy of Froissart’s Chroniques (Royal MS 18 E ii) was made for King Edward IV (r. 1461 – 1470), who had also gained the throne of England after deposing the previous king, who died mysteriously thereafter. In this case the deposed king was Henry VI, grandson of Henry IV who had deposed Richard II. Perhaps Edward pondered on this striking parallel as he read his finely illuminated chronicle manuscript.

A funeral cortage in a city, with a carriage containing a body pulled by two horses and mourners in black robes riding beside it; citizens watch from behind
The funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480), Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 416v

You can find out about news in modern and contemporary times in the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition, which runs to Sunday 21 August. For more on French chronicles in British Library manuscripts, see our virtual exhibition on Writing and Picturing History, Historical Manuscripts from the Royal collection.

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 July 2022

A tour of the Tower

Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?

Miniature of Charles, duke of Orléans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, with the city and London Bridge in the background

The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.

Drawing of medieval London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, enclosed by the city wall

London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.

Annotated image of the Tower of London and London Bridge in the background, from an illuminated manuscript made c. 1483

The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.

To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.

The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.

The White Tower of the Tower of London today

The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia

For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 July 2022

The golden splendour of the Queen Mary Psalter

Our Gold exhibition includes some of the most justly famous illuminated manuscripts in the Library. One of these, the Queen Mary Psalter, is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Extraordinarily, all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Illuminated figures against a gold incised background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. We don’t know for whom it was originally created, as there are no contemporary ownership inscriptions or other clues such as coats of arms that would identify the original patron. Nevertheless, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations are certainly grand enough to have been for a royal or aristocratic owner. The manuscript later belonged to Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), from whom it takes its name. It was presented to her in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England.

You can hear Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, talking about the Queen Mary Psalter in the Gold Exhibition Virtual Private View which is available to watch on the British Library Player (starting at 10:28):

For the Gold exhibition, we exhibit an opening which forms a sort of diptych of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, placed together after a blank recto to form a coordinated pairing. Together they provide a commentary on the ancestry and family of Christ. 

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, with fine miniatures in colours and gold
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

The Tree of Jesse on the left begins at the bottom with the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David. A large branch growing out of his torso curves around forming roundels in which his crowned descendants are seated on branches in the central and to either side of the middle king. Four figures with round hats stand laterally above and below the kings, perhaps the four major prophets. The only descendant who is identifiable by an attribute is David, who is playing his harp, directly above Jesse.

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesse lying at the bottom with a tree growing from his body, and figures in roundels within the tree
The Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

The iconography of the Jesse Tree is derived from Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root’ (egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet, Isaiah 11:1), in which the virga or rod is interpreted as a reference to the virgo, or Virgin. However, in this instance the Virgin is not included at the top of the tree, as is usual, but rather she is featured on the opposite page with a more unusual Psalter subject, the Holy Kinship.

Miniature of the Holy Kinship, with four levels each with a row of figures
The Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The depiction of the Holy Kinship on the right is shown in registers that are aligned with the levels of Jesse and the kings in circular branches in the Tree of Jesse. At the bottom is St Anne, by tradition the mother of the Virgin, with each of her three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. These couples are not identified by a label or caption, but their identities are clear from the figures in the register above them, namely their respective daughters, all called Mary. In this second register the three Marian half-sisters appear with their respective husbands. They are each labelled with their names written beneath them (rather helpfully, as Mary I, Mary II and Mary III).

In the next register the Virgin (labelled Maria Virgo) holds the Christ Child, next to St James the Less, in the centre, one of the sons of Mary Cleophas (II), and with St James the Great, to the right, the son of Mary Salome (III). In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world, next to the other two sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles (Sts Simon and Jude), and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome to the right.

Illuminated figure against a gold and blue chequerboard background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

Throughout, the figures are set on a glimmering gold backgrounds, on the right, with incised with intricate patterns, or alternating with coloured diamonds or squares.

For more on the textual basis for and other manuscript examples, see our previous blogpost on the Holy Kinship. To see this interesting pairing in person you can book tickets to the Gold exhibition. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

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

14 July 2022

African kings on medieval and Renaissance maps

One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away. 

Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Detail from a map showing two people travelling on camels surrounded by palm trees
Detail of people travelling across Africa on camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily, (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:

‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.

Illustration of Mansa Musa as a seated king holding a round gold object
Illustration of Mansa Musa from the Catalan Atlas (around 1375): Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30 (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.

A map of the Southern Atlantic
A map of the Southern Atlantic, showing the western coast of Africa with the eastern coast of South America, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.  

Three detail images of African Kings
Details of African rulers, the ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

 

Detail of Mansa Musa as a seated figure with white skin, playing a stringed instrument
Detail of Mansa Musa, from a map made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:

‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.

(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)

Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa. 

A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans. 

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

 

Detail of a map, showing a seated king holding two gold rings, beside him two camels
Detail of the ruler of Guinea, next to camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold. 

If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art. 

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by: 

BullionVault logo

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

05 July 2022

Virtual private view of Gold on the British Library Player

Many thanks to all of our readers who have visited the Gold exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Library; we’ve had some great feedback from you.

A cutting from a Gradual, illuminated in gold

Cutting from a Gradual (Florence, 2nd half of the 14th century): Add MS 35254C

For those who aren’t in London and may not be able to make the trip to the Library to see the exhibition in person, you can now watch two videos about the exhibition: (1) a highlights video outlining the exhibition and featuring curators discussing seven manuscripts in detail as a virtual private view; and (2) a film of a live question and answer session with the curators, chaired by Professor Alixe Bovey, Dean and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Both videos can be viewed on the British Library Player.

A page from a Book of Hours, showing the scribe or artist at work, sitting before a lectern with a pen in their right hand

Jean Bourdichon, Book of Hours (Tours, 1510–25): Add MS 18855, f. 13v

The virtual private view includes much more detailed information about the featured manuscripts than available on the labels, or in the exhibition book, so do have a look for a focus on the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter, for a detailed description of the techniques of using gold leaf in a cutting from an Italian gradual and of shell gold in a Jean Bourdichon Book of Hours, of gold tooling on a French Art Deco book binding, and for the process of extracting gold as seen in an 18th-century Japanese scroll of gold mining. 

The Tree of Jesse in the Queen Mary Psalter

The Queen Mary Psalter (London, early 14th century): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

Gold in on display at the British Library in London until 2 October 2022. Tickets can be purchased on the day or in advance from the online ticket office.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

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

30 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.

 

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Supported by:

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

24 June 2022

MP3

Some of you may have seen the exciting news that Trinity College Dublin has digitised its manuscript of the Book of St Albans by Matthew Paris. Initiatives of this kind whet the appetites of scholarly researchers and members of the public alike. We may not all have the opportunity to handle medieval manuscripts at first hand, but we always welcome the chance to see them up close in virtual form. Matthew Paris (d. around 1259) would have been proud as punch to see his work shared with so many people.

To celebrate this achievement, we thought we'd share with you another three manuscripts that were written and illustrated by Matthew Paris himself, all of which are held by the British Library (we're going to call them the MP3). We start by letting his elephant take a bow, which is found in the work known as 'Liber Additamentorum' (The Book of Additions), Cotton MS Nero D I. (All of the manuscripts we mention are available in full and for free online; no manuscripts were hurt in the writing of this blogpost.) We have written about this pachyderm before in our blogpost The Elephant at the Tower. The elephant was a gift to King Henry III of England (reigned 1216–1272) from Louis IX of France. Matthew had seen the animal in person, writing:

'About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight.'

The unnamed creature was said to be 10 years old, 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor. Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum contains this full-page illustration of the elephant, another version of which is found in a manuscript at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This begs the question, 'one trunk or two?'

Drawing of the elephant at the Tower of London by Matthew Paris

The elephant kept at the Tower of London, described and illustrated by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

Number 2 in our list of the famous MP3 is a map of Britain, drawn by Matthew Paris himself. It belongs with his Abbereviatio chronicorum, but was removed and bound separately in 1929 (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1). This map is effectively a gazetteer of 13th-century England, Wales and Scotland, drawn by someone who spent most of their life in St Albans and had no access to satellite mapping. Most notably to the modern eye, northern Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, Canterbury is located due South of London (and can be traced in a straight line via Newark, Doncaster and Durham to Newcastle, along the route of the East Coast mainline), and Mount Snowdon is represented by a sandcastle.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris

Map of Britain by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

And last, but not least, we have the autograph manuscript that contains Matthew's itinerary to Jerusalem and other maps, his Historia Anglorum, and the third part of his greatest historical work, the Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII). It's only by looking at this manuscript in the round that you get some sense of Matthew's wide range of interests, of his detailed chronicling activity, and of his artistic achievement. It's difficult to pick out any particular page for special attention — the candidates include his portraits of the kings of England and another map of Britain — but we have decided to go with the self-portrait of Matthew himself, portrayed kneeling before the Virgin and Child. Matthew Paris was not the most modest of men, to judge by his many writings. In this illustration he captures himself in a more suppliant pose, lying prostrate on the floor, but with his name picked out in blue and red capitals for the readers' attention. It's to this monk that we owe so many marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Miniature of the Virgin holding the birthday Jesus  with Matthew Paris lying at their feet

Miniature of the Virgin and Child, with a self-portrait by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

 

Julian Harrison

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