THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

732 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 13th century, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations.

But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

Perhaps the most famous image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

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Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

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Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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12 May 2019

Homer in London

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Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 May 2019

Whale of a time

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The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created a new animation telling the story of the Whale, the terror of the seas, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here. 

The bestiary was a type of manuscript that contained descriptions of over a hundred animals, detailing their characteristics and habits, as well as associated allegorical moral lessons. To explore more stories from the bestiary, check out this brilliant discussion on our website: ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

Illustrations of the whale in early medieval bestiaries vary greatly, but they often take the form of a type of enormous fish, with fins, a tail and a huge belly. According to one description in a manuscript made during the early 13th century (Harley MS 4751), the whale’s body is so large that unwary sailors mistake it for land and anchor their ships on its back. When they light fires, the creature feels the heat of the flames and dives beneath the waves, dragging the sailors to their deaths.  

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The whale is so huge that sailors could mistake it for an island, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 69r

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Sailors mistake a whale for an island and anchor their ship on its back, in Peraldus’ Theological Miscellany (England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 60v 

To feed itself, the whale will open its mouth and let out a sweet scent, luring schools of small fish inside. Then it quickly snaps its jaws shut, so that the fish cannot escape, and swallows them whole. Because of these behaviours, the commentary in medieval bestiaries associated the whale with the Devil, who similarly deceives and lures sinners, dragging them down with him to the depths of Hell.

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A hungry whale opens its mouth and lets out a sweet scent to lure small fish, in a bestiary (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 42v

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. As well as Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, check out this animation of the life of the crane, also created for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. The Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website contains a wealth of other articles relating to the manuscript culture of this period, alongside collection items from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

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On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

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Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

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Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

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One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

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A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

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Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

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An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans, De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 April 2019

Cesare Franchi, Renaissance art in miniature

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We are very pleased to have loaned three miniatures from our collection to the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, for their exhibition of works by Cesare Franchi. You can visit the exhibition from 13 April until 9 June 2019.

Cesare Franchi (c. 1560–1598), nicknamed il Pollino, was a leading miniaturist from Perugia. He worked in Rome and Perugia, creating fine quality miniatures that resemble tiny versions of late Renaissance paintings. As well as his art, Franchi is also known for his dramatic death. He was condemned for killing a masked reveller who insulted him during the Carnival. His fellow artists petitioned the Pope for a reprieve, but without success, and he was executed for murder. The shortness of Franchi’s career only adds to the rarity of his artworks.

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The Adoration of the Name of Jesus: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. C 

This miniature attributed to Franchi shows the Adoration of the Name of Jesus. The sacred monogram ‘IHS’, an abbreviation of the name of Jesus in Greek, appears in a shimmering gold roundel in the sky. On either side, winged cherubs sitting on clouds are playing musical instruments. Below, nine putti dance in a circle. Putti is the name given to the naked toddlers that often feature in Renaissance and Baroque art. Here, they seem to represent heavenly beings who express joy inspired by the name of Jesus.

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The Adoration of the Name of the Virgin: Add MS 46365 C-D, f. D

While the male putti celebrate the name of Jesus, this group of girls dance in Adoration of the Name of the Virgin. The composition is the same, except here the sacred monogram reads ‘MAR’ for Maria. The two companion miniatures were probably cut out from a liturgical manuscript.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds: Add MS 54246

This tender miniature depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, the scene when the shepherds came to visit the Holy Family after the Nativity of Christ. The baby Jesus lies on a cloth in the middle of the image. The shepherds, ox and ass gather reverently around him, along with Mary and Joseph who are identified by their haloes, on the left. Above, three cherubs bear a scroll inscribed Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax hominibus (‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among men’, cf. Luke 2:14).

Although he was well-known in his time, just over a dozen miniatures attributed to Franchi survive today. We are very proud that our three examples can join his other outstanding works at this important exhibition. We strongly recommend that you visit them at the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, from 13 April – 9 June 2019.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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12 April 2019

Reunited at last: the Percy Hours and Percy Psalter

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It is always exciting to acquire a new manuscript for the collection. But to acquire a new manuscript and reunite it with its long-separated other half is no less than thrilling. The Percy Psalter (Add MS 70000) and the Percy Hours (Add MS 89379) were created as a single-volume Psalter-Hours in the late 13th century. They formed one manuscript for around 500 years, until a 19th-century book dealer split them in two and sold the halves into separate private collections. The British Library acquired the Percy Psalter from the New York collector Clark Stillman in 1990. We are delighted to announce that we have now purchased the Percy Hours from the estate of the London collector Stephen Keynes, bringing the two manuscript halves together for the first time in around 200 years.

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The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the Annunciation: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 26r

This reunion is all the more satisfying because the Percy Psalter and Hours are historically important and stunningly beautiful. They were made in York towards the end of the 13th century as a prayer book for a branch of the aristocratic Percy family. Lord and Lady Percy are depicted on the opening page of the Psalter, proudly displaying their coats of arms.

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Psalm 1 with a historiated initial showing the Tree of Jesse; below, patron portraits and a stag hunt: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 16r

The manuscript was made at a moment of great change in book history. Devotional books were rapidly gaining popularity among wealthy laymen and women. At first these aristocratic patrons adopted the Psalter as their preferred book of personal devotion, inspired by monastic practices. Other essential texts were often included, such as a calendar for keeping track of different saints’ feast days, and the Office for the Dead for praying for the souls of departed loved ones. As the 13th century progressed, it became common to supplement the Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were recited at set hours of the day and night. This resulted in the Psalter-Hours — a deluxe all-in-one collection of texts for personal devotion.

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The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the funeral procession of the Virgin Mary: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 55r

The Percy Psalter-Hours is a rare and early example of this class of devotional book from northern England. The growing market for books in the 13th century led to professional workshops of scribes and illuminators appearing in cities around the country. The British Library has an outstanding collection of manuscripts made in regional workshops such as Oxford, London and East Anglia. But examples from the North are comparatively rare. The Percy Psalter-Hours was created by a well-organised team of scribes and artists, working in the latest styles. It reveals that northern book production was just as sophisticated as elsewhere in England.

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Calendar page for June showing the feast of St William of York: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 7v

The manuscript also displays some unique features of northern devotion. For example in the calendar, the feast days of former archbishops of York Sts Wilfrid (24 April and 12 October), John of Beverley (7 May) and William of York (8 June) are marked in glittering gold letters. Some of the feasts are so local that they do not appear in calendars anywhere else, such as the feasts of the Yorkshire abbess St Everild (9 July) and the York Feast of Relics (19 October). St William of York is also commemorated with a prayer in the Hours (f. 42v). Another important local feature is that the Hours of the Virgin follows a slightly different version (or ‘Use’) than elsewhere. It is thought that this manuscript preserves the earliest surviving example of the Hours of the Virgin of the Use of York.

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Prayer commemorating St William of York: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 42v

Perhaps the most appealing feature of the manuscript is its artwork. In both the Psalter and Hours, each major text opens with a letter containing a miniature scene from a religious narrative. Graceful figures in jewel-like colours are set against backgrounds of shimmering gold. Some may give a clue to the religious affiliations of the original owners. For example, an image at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms shows a man confessing to a Dominican friar, identified by his black habit. This may suggest that the owners had a Dominican confessor.

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Penitential Psalms with a Dominican hearing confession and a priest blessing penitents: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 62r

In contrast to the serene images in the initials, the margins of both the Psalter and Hours portions of the manuscript are inhabited by boisterous scenes of animals and hybrid monsters fighting, playing musical instruments, or simply wandering by. It’s hard not to smile when you open a page and are greeted with these lively creatures.

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Creatures in the margins: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, ff. 83r, 92r, 94r, 97v, 100r, 78v, 85r; the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, ff. 13v, 4r, 5r

We are very pleased to have acquired the Percy Hours and to have finally reunited it with the Percy Psalter in the national collection. You can view both of these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we plan to display them in the Library’s Treasures Gallery later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the Percy Hours.

This is the second of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. For the first, see our earlier announcement on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

Eleanor Jackson

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