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811 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

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Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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08 January 2021

A virtual get-away, medieval style

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In these dark days of January, we all dream of escape. Perhaps it's time for a virtual vacation, medieval style. Here are some options to choose from.

France

Paris is the ultimate city of romance and culture — a firm favourite of tourists. This miniature shows the River Seine and perhaps the Ile de la Cité with the Palais (now the Conciergerie) on the right. You are unlikely to meet armoured men there nowadays, though you may see some ‘gilets jaunes’.

A manuscript image of knights in armour blockading Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind

Knights in armour blockade Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind, in Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1270–1380 (Paris, 1380–1400): Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 135v

Or how about renting a chateau in the French countryside?

A manuscript image of the Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes

The Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes, in the Roman de la Rose (Bruges, c. 1500): Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

Italy

Tuscany has it all — rolling hills with stunning vistas, hilltop villages of luminous Tuscan stone, sunshine, art and wine — and Florence, beloved home-town of Dante Alighieri, pictured here flying over the landscape with Beatrice, in his vision of Paradise.

A manuscript image of Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice

Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice (Tuscany, c.1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 157r

Spain

Or how about a package holiday to sunny Spain? A Spanish trip should always include a ‘Costa’ as the sun is bound to shine and the nightlife is great. Do you prefer the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava or Costa del Sol? 

A manuscript image of the Sun with an angel and birds

The Sun with an angel and birds, in the Silos Apocalypse (Northern Spain, c. 1100): Add MS 11695, f. 197r

Portugal

Lisbon’s palaces, monasteries and its great location on the estuary of the River Tagus  make it a perfect place to spend a weekend. This detailed border image in a genealogy of the kings and queens of Portugal shows the major sites and the city, including the Jeronimos monastery (completed 1521) a little way up the coast. It was painted by the artist Antonio de Holanda, who was based in Lisbon.

A manuscript image of a genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour

A genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour (Lisbon, 1530–34): Add MS 12531, f. 7r 

Cyprus and the Greek Islands

Cyprus is perhaps the destination for foodies. The well-known medieval armchair traveller, Sir John Mandeville, ‘visited’ Cyprus, where he found various recreational activities including magnificent feasts. Some of the places seen by Mandeville were illustrated by a Bohemian artist.

A manuscript image of a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast

Recreation in Cyprus with, above, a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast, in an illustrated version of Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, early 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 5v

For those who wish to combine the sun and sea of the Greek Islands with a visit to a World Heritage Site, a visit to the island of Patmos is recommended. It was here that St John the Evangelist was exiled and had his vision of the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse was built on the site of the cave where John heard the voice of God. Images of him writing the Book of Revelations on Patmos are usually found at the beginning of medieval Apocalypses.

John, on the island of Patmos, being visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat

John, on the island of Patmos, is visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat (Netherlands or Germany, c. 1400): Add MS 38121, f. 3v 

Sun, sand and sea

There are different types of holidays to choose from, some of them further afield, but for most people, a beach holiday is the most popular. Sadly, there are not many pictures of beaches in medieval manuscripts. However, we did find one in a 16th-century notebook of botanical watercolours of plant species and landscapes by the Italian botanist, Gherardo Cibo. The plant, Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed, is shown beside a long beach with fishermen carrying rods, but with no parasols or deckchairs in sight.

A manuscript image of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background

Illustration of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background (Italy, 1564–84):  Add MS 22332, f. 150r

And for those who enjoy swimming, please do remember your swimming trunks; it's advisable not to wear a crown. This image is from a collection of tales of famous women by Christine de Pizan, and it illustrates the story of Camilla from the Aeneid. King Metabus escapes across the river with his daughter after being dethroned by his enemies.

A manuscript image of the Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind

The Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind, in a Flemish translation of Cité des dames (Netherlands, 1475): Add MS 20698, f. 64v

Asia

For exploring Asia, Alexander the Great would be the best guide. With him, you could go diving, visit the trees of the Sun and Moon, and see exotic beasts in India.

A manuscript image of Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask

Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, in Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1444–45): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

A manuscript image of the trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander

The trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander, in Ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 31v–32r

An African Safari

The ultimate destination for the adventure traveller is a safari to Africa. Here are some of the animals you might see if you are lucky – and some you might not!

A manuscript image of a leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal

A leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal, in a bestiary: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 7r

Staying at Home

For our British readers, if this is all too much and you prefer a staycation, there are some lovely places to visit in our own green and pleasant land.

A manuscript image of an English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships

An English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships, in Wavrin, Chroniques de la Grande Bretagne (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 24v

Don't forget that you can explore these and other manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

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Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 December 2020

The medieval Christmas weather forecast

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Are you wondering if we'll have a white Christmas? If so, forget about new-fangled weather forecasts: medieval manuscripts at the British Library may hold the answer!

One of these, a collection of Middle English texts compiled by John Colyns (d. c. 1542), a mercer of the parish of St Mary Woolchurch Haw in London, includes a series of weather predictions based on the phases of the Moon. It tells us that the weather is determined by the ‘prime of the Moon’, the day of the month on which you can see the first appearance of the ‘New Moon’ (when the Moon is invisible to the naked eye).

A snowy winter scene, including a man chopping wood for a woman to gather, and a domestic interior with a man, woman, and a baby, with, in the border below, men pulling a companion on a sledge.

A snowy winter scene (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 18v

The manuscript compiled by John Colyns, Harley MS 2252, gives us the following predictions:

Sunday: When the prime falls on a Sunday, in that Moon you shall have drought.
Monday: When the prime falls on a Monday, in that Moon you shall have wetness.
Tuesday: When the prime falls on a Tuesday, it means wind and coldness.
Wednesday: When the prime falls on Wednesday, you shall hear marvellously in that Moon.
Thursday: When the prime falls on a Thursday, it means a bright Moon.
Friday: When the prime falls on a Friday, you will have a moderate Moon.
Saturday: When the prime falls on a Saturday, you will have plenty of rain.

('Sonday: When the prime fallythe uppon Sonday in þat mone ye shall have drowghte
Monday: When the prime fallyth on the Monday in þat mone ye shall have moyste
Tuysday: When the prime fallyth on Tuysday hyt betokenythe wynde and colde.
Wenysday: When þe prime fallythe on Wednysday ye shall here marvelous in that mone
Thursday: When the prime fallythe on Thursday hyt betokenyt a clere mone
Fryday: When the prime fallythe on Frydaye ye shall have a mean mone
Saturday: When the prime fallythe on Saturday ye shall have plenty of rayne')

A set of weather predictions in John Colyns commonplace book, organised according to the days of the week (Sunday to Saturday), written in brown ink.

Weather predictions in John Colyns’ commonplace book (England, c. 1520–c. 1540): Harley MS 2252, f. 159v

Since the New Moon fell this month on Monday, 14 December, this means that Christmas this year is bound to be wet! You heard it here first!

A wintry scene with a man and a woman seated in front of a fire and sheltering from the snow to the left, and in the foreground, a woman walking her dog and warming her hands with her breath.

A wintry scene in the margins of a calendar page for the month of January (Bruges, c. 1500): Egerton MS 1147, f. 6v

Wherever you are, there is a good chance of snow as well. Middle English weather predictions in a 15th-century medical manuscript (Add MS 4898) tell us that if 1 January falls on a Wednesday, which was the case this year, winter shall be ‘cold, hard and good, and [see] great snowfalls versus ferocious winds’ (‘Ȝyf þe ferste day of genever be wednysday . wynter schal be coold hard and good and grete snowys ver wykkyd wyndy’).

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday, written in black ink, and starting with a large blue initial that features penwork and pen-flourishing in red ink.

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday (England, 15th century): Add MS 4898, f. 130r

Although we might see wind and snow, the weather will not be too harsh. This is indicated by an English farmer’s almanac (Add MS 17367) that dates to the 1530s, as Dr Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library) has determined. She points out that the almanac features weather predictions that are based on a year’s ‘Sunday letter’ or ‘dominical letter’. This refers to a method in which the letters 'A' to 'G' are assigned to the days of the week in an alphabetical order, with the letter 'A' always starting on 1 January. The year is then associated with the letter that corresponds with its first Sunday. In 2020, the first Sunday was on 5 January, which means that we live in an ‘E’ year. Our almanac’s weather predictions for such years are mostly illegible, but seem to predict ‘A good [winter]’.

An English almanac with predictions according to the Sunday letter of a year. The Sunday letters are written in red ink on the left side of the page.

Weather predictions in an English farmer’s almanac (England, 1530s): Add MS 17367

If we do get snow, the weather may be similar to a Christmas period sometime in the 15th century. An English almanac from 1420 (Royal MS 17 A XVI) features a weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas that says, ‘last Christmas was of three conditions: rain in the morning, fair weather at ten and eleven, and dark and overcast weather in the afternoon’ (‘Crystynmes day laste past was off iij condycions in þe mornyng rayn at x and xj fayr weddur at aftur none dark and lowring’). During the next Twelve Days of Christmas, mist and clouds alternated with bright weather. However, on 30 December, ‘it began to snow and it snowed until the night’ (‘yt be gan to snaw and snew to nyght’). This weather returned on New Year’s Day when ‘it snowed until 10 in the morning and at noon it began again and it snowed all day until it was night’ (‘att þe mornyng yt snew to x of þe cloke and at xij yt be began agayn and snew all þe day to yt was nyght’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 1420): Royal MS 17 A XVI, f. 1v

But if snow fails to appear, the Christmas period may be more like a Twelvetide in 16th-century England. A weather report from that period, which was added to a 12th-century biblical manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary and St Rumon at Tavistock in Devon (Add MS 62122), tells us, ‘Christmas was fair and dry without any sunshine’ (‘Chrystynmas was fayre and drye with owt enye sunne shynyng’). The next days were mostly dry, but ‘New Year’s Day was full of rain all day long’ (‘new yeres day was full of rayne all daye lange’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 16th century): Add MS 62122, f. 2v

Just in case you question the authority of our sources — the practice of weather forecasting was well established in the Middle Ages, and supported by Classical sources such as the Meteorologica (Meteorology) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose works on natural philosophy were well-known in late medieval Europe.

A seated philosopher pointing up to a cloud above from which snowflakes fall down and from which emerges an animal’s head with a fiery breath, probably representing lightning.

An initial in Aristotle’s Libri Naturales (Books on Natural Philosophy) with a philosopher pointing up to lightning and snow coming from a cloud above (?Oxford, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3487, f. 140v

We trust that our 'reliable' weather predictions will help you prepare for the Christmas period. You can explore the weather predictions of John Colyns and related writings in the fully digitised version of his commonplace book (Harley MS 2252) that is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. It is part of our Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts project, and it's also one of the 3,000 manuscripts from the Harley collection that we have now described online.


Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 December 2020

New Prophecies of the Ancient Sibyls

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The British Library's major project to provide online catalogue records of manuscripts in the Harley collection has made significant progress in 2020. We have now enhanced the descriptions of some 3,000 Harley manuscripts, and more are being added every month to our Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue. Along the way, we are continuing to make new identifications and to unearth hitherto unknown texts. In this blogpost, Clarck Drieshen describes the recent discovery of a 14th-century Latin manuscript from France (Harley MS 3723) that contains previously unknown copies of the universal chronicle of the French Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet (1205–1271) (a history of the world from the Creation up to his own time) and a text on the ancient female oracles known as The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl.

The beginning of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl in Harley MS 3723, with a large red initial ‘D’

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 123r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl tells of ten female oracles, known as Sibyls, who prophesied from sacred locations in regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Except for reporting that the Sibyls at Delphi and Erythraea had predicted the Trojan War, this work has little to say about the first nine oracles. As its modern title suggests, the focus is on the tenth Sibyl, named Tibultina in Greek and Albunea in Latin. She was also known as the 'Tiburtine Sibyl', after Tibur (modern-day Tivoli in Italy), from where she was believed to have made her prophecies. The work identifies her as the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the legendary last king and queen of Troy, making her the sister of the Trojan princes Hector and Paris and the cursed prophet Cassandra.

Twelve women with dresses in different colours sitting on a circular bench with a golden pillar in the middle. The women, who represent the Sibyls, prophesise the birth of Christ.

Twelve Sibyls prophesising the birth of Christ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 8v

In the Middle Ages, the Tiburtine Sibyl was known especially for predicting the birth of Christ. One legend told that she showed Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–14 CE) a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, which stopped him from declaring himself divine.

The Roman Emperor Augustus in a grey gown kneeling down and with his crown beside him with the Sibyl Tiburtina in a red dress standing behind him and showing him a vision of the Virgin Mary with Christ (who are visible elsewhere on the page).

The Tiburtine Sibyl with the Emperor Augustus (Northern Netherlands, 1486): Harley MS 2943, f. 11r

In The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a Roman emperor summons her after one hundred senators had experienced the same dream on the same night. In this dream, nine different suns had appeared in the sky. Asked to interpret the dream, the Tiburtine Sibyl explained that the suns represented nine future eras. She prophesied that one sun, which the senators described as having a blood-red colour, signified an era in which a virgin named Mary would bear a child named Jesus, the son of God. She also foretold that the last sun to appear in the dream, which had been very gloomy, represented the end time in which the son of God would return for a final judgement over humankind.

The Sibyl Tiburtina depicted as a woman with a white veil and a blue mantle unfurling a scroll.

The Tiburtine Sibyl (Catalonia, 1273): Add MS 50003, f. 221r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl concludes with a poem about the end of the world that contains a ‘hidden’ reference to the birth of Christ and his return at the world's end. In the original Greek version of the poem, reading the first letter of each line downwards spells out the words: ‘Iesous Chreistos Theou Uios Soter’ (‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour’). The Latin translator tried to preserve this vertical text (acrostic), but was not always able to find a meaningful Latin word starting with the required letter.

Tiburtina’s poem on the end of the world, with the initials of each new line highlighted in red and forming an acrostic text in Greek about Christ.

The Tiburtine Sibyl's poem on the end of the world (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 126v

Although we now know that The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl originated from a Greek text composed by a 4th-century Christian writer, that in turn was translated into Latin and expanded around the year 1000, medieval authors believed that the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies were authentic, and they considered her an important witness to the truth of the Gospels. Her prophecies were circulated widely and today survive in over 100 manuscripts. You can read more about the manuscript tradition in Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin Sibylla Tiburtina c. 1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Another copy of The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, opening with a large purple initial ‘S’ with decoration in blue, green, purple, and red inside the letter

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (? Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV, f. 117v

The 13th-century Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet would undoubtedly have been interested in the Tiburtine Sibyl's predictions about Christ, but probably also in her prophecies about the kings involved with the events leading up to the end time. Since she referred to these important kings only by their first initials, medieval authors were able to identify rulers living in their own times with these prophesied kings. Gerald himself felt a strong allegiance to Charles of Anjou (1226/1227–1285), the youngest son of Louis VIII of France and founder of the Capetian House of Anjou. In his universal chronicle, he stressed that Charles was a descendant of Charlemagne (748–814), King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans, and compared his victory over Manfred, King of Sicily, in 1266 to Charlemagne’s victory over the Lombards. The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl predicted a powerful Frankish king whose name began with the letter ‘K’ and was clearly identifiable with Charlemagne (‘Karolus Magnus’). By adding her prophecies to his chronicle, Gerald may have wanted to emphasise Charles of Anjou’s ancestry and attribute an important role to him — a new Charlemagne — on the world stage. You can read more about the relationship between the chronicle and the prophecies in Régis Rech, ‘Charles d'Anjou et le Limousin: la conquête du royaume de Naples chez Hélie Autenc et Géraud de Frachet’, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes, 158 (2000), 443-73.

The pope crowns Charles of Anjou, who sits in the middle, wears a blue cloak and holds two gold-coloured sceptres with a fleur-de-lis.

Charles of Anjou is crowned King of Sicily (Paris, 1332–1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 429v

Harley MS 3723 is an important witness to Gerald of Frachet’s work. Of the roughly 25 manuscripts of his universal chronicle known previously to scholars, only three others contain the The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl. This arrangement of texts may also have been part of the manuscript that Gerald is thought to have presented to Charles of Anjou. Harley MS 3723 is also the only copy of Gerald’s work that reached England in the Late Middle Ages. Although English readers may have been less keen to identify the kings in the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies with French rulers, her predictions about disease and warfare may have strongly resonated with their experiences of the bubonic plague and Hundred Years War.

Containing more than 7500 manuscripts, the Harley collection is one of the largest intact 18th-century libraries in the world. Watch this Blog for more news about our discoveries as we continue to catalogue the Harley collection.  

 

Clarck Drieshen

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04 December 2020

Ancient steam engines

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Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.

The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.

The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.

The title-page of a manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.

Image 2

Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)

Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.

A replica of Hero's steam engine

A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)

Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.

A manuscript illustration showing Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains

Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)

Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.

A manuscript illustration showing the design of an animated model of a sanctuary

The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)

Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.

An annotated manuscript of Hero's Pneumatics

Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)

Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.

 

Peter Toth

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29 November 2020

Sherborne Missal on the radio

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Earlier this summer we digitised one of our greatest medieval treasures, the Sherborne Missal. Now this stunning illuminated manuscript is the subject of an episode of Moving Pictures radio programme, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 30th November 2020 at 4pm. You can also listen to the programme on the BBC website shortly after broadcast.

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

The richly decorated page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
The page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216

Made in the early 14th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts for the Mass. In the Moving Pictures programme, we will be focusing on the page for Easter Sunday, the most important feast of the Christian year.

The feast of Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Christ, which is the subject of the page’s glorious initial letter:

Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Lower down the page, the patrons of the manuscript, Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng, and the craftsmen, John Whas and John Siferwas, pay their respects:

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

And scenes from the Old Testament provide theological parallels, or types, for the Resurrection:

Details of small scenes showing Jonah and the whale, and Sampson and the lion
 Jonah and the whale (left), and Sampson and the lion (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

But why are these hairy men fighting?

Detail of two hairy wodewoses fighting
Wodewose fight, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

And is that a bittern?

Detail of a bittern
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

To find out, tune in to Moving Pictures on BBC Radio 4, 30th November 2020 at 4pm, or listen on the BBC website afterwards!

Eleanor Jackson
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23 November 2020

The Polonsky project's two year anniversary

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Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.

We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix rising from the flames: Harley MS 4751

We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:

(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).

The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.

So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.

If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.

You can read about the work of the Polonsky Foundation on their newly launched website, including about the England and France project.

Kathleen Doyle

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