Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

887 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

03 March 2023

Bringing the Cotton fragments to life

One of the most catastrophic episodes in modern library history was the Ashburnham House fire. On the night of 29 October 1731, a fire took hold below the room which held the famous Cotton collection, containing many of the most iconic historical and literary treasures from early times, among them Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some of these items escaped the flames intact, others were singed or damaged by the water used to douse the fire, while many hundreds were burned significantly or completely destroyed. The fire-damaged survivors are held today at the British Library, but many of them remain extraordinarily difficult to handle or are too blackened to be read with the naked eye.


One of the burnt pages from a 10th-century Irish Psalter: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1v

But help is now at hand. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Goldhammer Foundation, since 2020 the Library has been engaged in a project to bring some of the fragmentary Cotton remains to life. We have used multispectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged items, and our conservation team has employed new techniques to re-house some of the most vulnerable fragments and to improve the handling of the bound volumes.

Over the coming months, we will feature on this Medieval Manuscripts Blog stories about the most recent restoration of the burnt Cotton manuscripts, but here is a sample to whet your appetite. In due course, the items themselves will be available to view online in all their glory. The Cotton fire may have had tragic consequences, but there is potentially some light at the end of the tunnel.

Cotton MS Fragments I is a 12th-century manuscript containing a compilation of historical, geographical and other texts, made at Saint-Bertin. This work has been shown to be closely related to the Liber Floridus (‘Book of Flowers'), an important medieval encyclopedia made by Lambert, canon of Saint-Omer, between 1090 and 1100. Among its many texts, the manuscript notably contains an early plan of the city of Jerusalem, near impossible to discern in its current burnt state, but which can now be seen again in the new multispectral images.


A plan of the city of Jerusalem, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments I, f. 19r

In the 19th century, many of the fire-damaged Cotton manuscripts underwent intensive restoration, led principally by the efforts of Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. During this process, their folios were often remounted and reorganised. However, some of the smallest and most fragile of the burnt fragments could not be reunited with their original volumes and were instead housed separately in nine small boxes, now known as Cotton MS Fragments XXXII. One focus of this project has been the imaging and preservation of these tiny fragments, some measuring as little as a few millimetres in diameter. 


A fragment of a burnt Old English manuscript: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/3, Fragment 1r


A burnt fragment from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/2, Fragment 1r

Our project also includes a number of illuminated manuscripts. Particularly notable is an early Gallican Psalter, made in Ireland during the first half of the 10th century. This Psalter was so badly damaged in the 1731 fire that the 1802 catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts stated that it was ‘desideratur’ (destroyed). The Psalter was subsequently rediscovered by Madden, who remounted and reorganised its pages.


An illustration of David and Goliath from an early 10th-century Irish Psalter, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1r

The Psalter features two full-page illustrations, now placed at the beginning of the volume, which depict David killing Goliath (f. 1r) and David enthroned, playing a harp (f. 2r); they were once placed at the openings of Psalms 51 and 102, facing framed initial pages. It also features numerous zoomorphic initials, made up of the bent bodies of ribbon shaped animals or distinctive panels of interlace.


The beginning of Psalm 51 from the Irish Psalter, showing a zoomorphic initial, set within a full-page frame, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 3r

We are extremely grateful to Gina Goldhammer and the Goldhammer Foundation for their generous support of the Cotton Fragments Project. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Christina Duffy (formerly Research Imaging Scientist at the Library) and our conservation team (Gavin Moorhead, Camille Dekeyser, Gary Kelly, Francesca Whymark and Mark Oxtoby), without whom none of this could have been achieved.


Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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16 February 2023

Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door

The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, showcases how stories about this ancient ruler were transformed and spread across centuries, cultures and languages. Some of these legends take Alexander to the unknown realms of the world, to face fantastic beasts, amazing people and terrifying monsters. But one story takes him even further — to the gates of Paradise.

5 men stand in front of the walls to a city. One man carries a sword

Alexander’s army at the gates of Paradise, in Voyage au paradis terrestre, interpolated in the Roman d’Alexandre (Tournai, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264, f. 185v (detail).

Put together around AD 500 by the most eminent Jewish scholars of the time, the Babylonian Talmud is the most important source of rabbinic code in Judaism. It collects the replies and statements of prominent Jewish rabbis about various issues and questions. One of these (Tractate Tamid 32b) records the following story.

In the course of his adventures in the mythical East, Alexander reached the entrance of the Garden of Eden and raised a loud voice, calling out: “Open the gate for me!” The sentry of the Garden of Eden said to him: “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter into it. Since you are not righteous, you may not enter.” He said to them: "If I will not be admitted, at least give me something from inside." They gave him one eyeball. He brought it and he weighed all the gold and silver that he had against the eyeball, and yet the riches did not balance against the eyeball’s greater weight. He said to his philosophers: "What is this? Why does this eyeball outweigh everything?" They said: "It is the eyeball of a mortal person of flesh and blood, which is not satisfied ever." He said to them: "From where do you know that this is the reason for the unbalanced scale?" The philosophers answered him: "Take a small amount of dirt and cover the eye." He did so, and it was immediately balanced by its proper counterweight. The eye is never satisfied while it can see.

Black and white text in Hebrew
The Hebrew version of Alexander’s visit to Paradise from the Talmud (Tamid 62b), Babylonian Talmud (20 volumes), Nehardea edition, published by Vagshal (Jerusalem, 1988)

This allegorical story of human greed, first recorded in the Talmud, became very popular in Jewish culture and started a life of its own, spreading even beyond Judaism. In the 12th century, it appears in an interesting Latin narrative which, according to its title, was translated from Hebrew by a certain Rabbi Salomon and spread quickly in medieval western Europe. During the translation process, the original concept of an eyeball given to Alexander was transformed into a miraculous stone that outweighed everything but, if covered with dust, was lighter than anything else. The general morale of the Hebrew story also became simple and clearer. In Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum (Alexander’s journey to Paradise) the philosophers simply tell Alexander, “The stone is you, your majesty”.

Turned into another gloomy premonition of Alexander’s upcoming death and the collapse of his empire, the Latin story was soon incorporated into various medieval versions of the Alexander Romance. It appears in one of the most famous medieval manuscripts of the Alexander Romance in the Bodleian Library, incorporated in the French Roman d’Alexandre, with exquisite illustrations depicting Alexander’s army in front of the gates of Paradise and the measure and assessment of the wondrous stone.

Two miniatures. Left: men stand in discussion in front of sealed gates. Right: four men report to a fifith who wears a crown

The guardian of paradise gifts the wonderstone to Alexander’s army (left); Alexander and his philosophers assess it (right): Bodley MS 264, f. 186r (detail)

Transmitted in the French Roman d’Alexandre, the story was further adapted in other prose and poetic retellings of Alexander’s legends. In the 16th-century Scots version of the Alexander Romance by Gilbert Hay, the mysterious gift Alexander receives from Paradise is transformed into a miraculous apple that changes colour and outweighs everything else, but becomes incredibly light-weighted when covered in clay. The changing colour of the apple and the shifting of its weight are both premonitions to Alexander that he should “think that þow has schorte tyme for to liff…”

Handwritten text in scots language

Alexander receives the miraculous apple from Paradise, in tGilbert Hay, The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

The incredible journey of the story of Alexander’s failed attempt to visit Paradise from 6th-century Hebrew sources through Latin adaptations and medieval vernacular legends is just one of the many legends are featured in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. You can visit in person until 19th February 2023 or explore more online at

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Peter Toth

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13 February 2023

Magic fountains and peacocks

One of the star objects in our current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is perhaps the most famous of all western manuscripts of the French Alexander Romance. Known as Bodley MS 264 from the collections of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, this is a large volume, packed with stories and pictures. Particularly famous for its magnificent cycle of illustrations, this manuscript also contains the most complete version of the Roman d’Alexandre, a rich catalogue of Alexander’s adventures on his journeys of conquest and exploration.

In one episode from the Roman d’Alexandre, the Greeks pass through a land with three wondrous springs that, in turn, restore lost youth, confer immortality and bring the dead back to life. Much to his annoyance, Alexander is unable to bathe in the second spring and achieve immortality because Enoch, one of his companions, finds it first. As punishment for using up the spring’s power, Alexander has Enoch imprisoned in a stone pillar until the end of time.

Four miniatures. Top left: the king and 4 others gathered around a table. Top right: a city being attacked. Bottom left: And army. Bottom right: A women in a tower

One of nine full-page miniatures of Alexander’s adventures, including the episode of the three magic springs on the lower right(Tournai, Flanders, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264, f. 67v

In addition to the myriad stories in the Roman d’Alexandre itself, further accounts of Alexander’s exploits, taken from the most diverse sources, are interpolated into the main text of this manuscript, and a sequel added. Here follows a list of the additional material.

Fuerre de Gadres ('The Foray of Gadres')

In this episode, a small troop of Greek soldiers steal cattle to feed the troops besieging Tyre. They are attacked by a superior force and fight valiantly until Alexander rescues them.

Three scenes. Top: Alexander, crowned and dressed in gold, orders his army towards the knights opposite; (middle) a battle scene, knights on horseback; (bottom) Alexander receiving a message that his men are in trouble

Three scenes in Fuerre de Gadres: (1) Alexander sends out his troops; (2) a battle at Tyre; (3) Alexander hears that his men are in trouble: Bodley MS 264, f. 21v

Prise de Defur ('The Capture of Defur')

In this chivalric exploit, Alexander answers a call for help by the knight, Gratien. He slays the evil Duke of Melcis and captures his city of Defur.

Four miniatures. Top left: men on horseback talking. Top right: men on foot talking in front of a city. Bottom left: two armoured knights jousting. Bottom right: two mounted knights, the left hand knight has had his helmet knocked off.

In the Prise de Defur, Alexander meets Gratien, before he defeating the Duke of Melcis in a tournament: Bodley MS 264, f. 101v

Voeux du paon ('The Vows of the Peacock')

A series of vows are taken over a peacock that is served at a banquet attended by Alexander. Nine knights vow to perform deeds of valour, and three maidens vow to find husbands of Alexander’s choice. The deeds are accomplished and the story ends with a celebration of the marriages.

Seven figures on a gold background. The figures are behind a dining table with a white cloth on it. There are 4 women, 3 men. The central figure wears a crown

Alexander at the banquet in the Voeux du Paon: Bodley MS 264, f. 163v

Le Restor du Paon

A continuation of the Voeux du Paon legend, in which a further vow to re-make the peacock in gold is taken, and a debate is held on the merits of the vows.

Manuscript page featuring a miniature in the top right. It shows four people gathered around a golden peacock which is perched atop a tall pillar

Two knights and two maidens with the golden peacock: Bodley MS 264, f. 182r

Voyage au Paradis terrestre ('The Journey to Paradise')

This episode is on display in our exhibition. Alexander journeys to the gates of Paradise but is forbidden entry despite his show of strength.

Five men, one carrying a raised sword, gather in front of a city

Alexander’s men at the gates of Paradise: Bodley MS 264, f. 186r

Vengeance Alexandre ('The Avenging of Alexander')

In this sequel to the Romance, Alexander’s son Alior plots his revenge on those responsible for his father’s death. Alior and Candace, his mother, destroy the supporters of the treacherous Antipater (who had poisoned Alexander) and his son.

Four miniature. Top left: people listening to a king speak. Top right: two figures approach a city. Bottom left: 7 men stand in a group. Bottom right: people listen to a king speak

Alexander’s family and companions plan their revenge after his death: Bodley MS 264, f. 196v

Also transmitted in Bodley MS 264 is a unique extract from the poem known as Alexander and Dindimus, and a copy of Marco Polo’s Voyages.

 Alexander and Didymus

A fragmentary alliterative poem in Middle English consisting of five letters between Alexander and Dindimus, King of the Gymnophysists, in which they discuss their ways of life. Alexander's excessive pride in worldly deeds is shown to be misguided.

Miniature showing two men, naked, each seated in a cave. The left hand figure wears a crown

Alexander and Didymus, seated naked in caves, discuss philosophy: Bodley MS 264, f.  211r


Marco Polo, Voyages

Busy City scene. Ships and swans are on the water

Marco Polo in the land of the Great Khan: Bodley MS 264, f. 218r

Don’t miss this fascinating manuscript in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, on display at the British Library until 19 February 2023.   

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter at @BLMedieval

09 February 2023

A newly-acquired manuscript of the Knights Hospitaller

For two hundred years, the Knights Hospitaller ruled the Greek island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey. From there, this Christian military-religious Order fought a naval war against the growing Ottoman Empire, slowly pushing back the edges of Catholic Christendom. As the Ottoman advances continued, the Hospitallers made repeated calls for reinforcements from Europe. A new acquisition by the British Library, Add MS 89542, is one of the Order’s last pleas for aid for Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript page, written in Humanistic script with the opening words in gold, with a decorated border and an initial containing a portrait of a Hospitaller
The opening page of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes: Add MS 89542, p. 1

The manuscript is a presentation copy of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes, copied from the printed edition and made for the Hospitaller grandmaster Fabrizio del Carretto (r. 1513-21), who is depicted in a miniature in the volume. Gargha was a Hospitaller priest and diplomat. His Orationes was an early printed book containing the text of two speeches he made to Pope Leo X at the Fifth Lateran Council in December 1513 and March 1514. In these speeches, Gargha begged for support for the Order on Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript leaf with a panel featuring a man with a white beard and holding a rosary, wearing the black habit and white cross of a Hospitaller, bordered by colourful foliage and a seahorse.
Miniature of Fabrizio del Carretto, Hospitaller grandmaster: Add MS 89542, p. 1 (detail)

In his first speech, the Hospitaller grandmaster warned that a large Turkish fleet was being assembled to attack Rhodes, an island that he said was key to Christendom’s defence, with its strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling routes to the Black Sea, Turkey and Syria. He called for the reform of the Church, a new crusade against the Ottomans, and the capture of Constantinople and Jerusalem. Gargha’s second speech followed much the same lines as his first. He again called for a crusade and said that the Ottomans were now preparing to attack Italy itself. Such an expedition never came, but the Pope and Francis I of France did dispatch several ships to Rhodes.

A coloured map of Rhodes depicting its settlements and topography
A map of Rhodes, from Heinrich Hammer’s Insularium illustratum, c. 1490: Add MS 15760, f. 12v

The manuscript is just one of several pieces of Hospitaller propaganda held by the Library, including two printed editions of the Orationes (C.25.i.1.(6.) and IA.18396.(10.)), several copies of Guillaume Caoursin’s account of the 1480 siege of Rhodes in Latin, German and Danish, and an English pamphlet on the fall of Rhodes in 1522 (C.55.h.5).

A group of horsemen with scimitars pursue the Hospitallers from Rhodes. In the background, a group of soldiers stand by a ship.
Woodcut depicting the 1522 siege of Rhodes, from The begynnynge and foundacyon of the holy hospytall / & of the ordre of the knyghtes hospytallers of saynt Iohan baptyst of Ierusalem (London, 1524)

After fighting off sieges in 1444 and 1480, the island finally fell in 1522, when the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Rhodes for six months until the Hospitallers finally surrendered. At the back of our newly-acquired volume (pp. 38–40) is a unique text discussing the Order’s defeat. This French account was written by a Hospitaller soon after the siege, possibly a member of the Order’s chancery. The author bemoans the loss of Rhodes and the many dead in the siege, before giving a list of reasons why the island fell. It appears to be a unique text, and hints at a debate within the shell-shocked Order as to why they lost their island home of 200 years.

The manuscript is also notable for its fine humanistic script. The scribe was Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (b. 1475, d. 1527), who worked in the papal chancery in Rome. As a Vatican Scriptor, he wrote the formal antica tonda script, used in Gargha's Orationes, and popularised the cancelleresca (chancery) script. This became the model for the printing types with which he printed several short humanist texts. He also planned, but left unfinished, a manual of writing printed from wood blocks based on his hand, the first of its kind, of which many copies exist. The British Library holds four other manuscripts of his work (Add MS 26873, Add MS 11930, Royal MS 12 C VIII and Harley MS 5423), as well as copies of his printed publications. His pamphlet La Operina (1522) is thought to be the first European writing manual aimed at a general adult audience.

The opening pages to a printed book, with elegant Italic typography
Opening pages of Ludovico degli Arrighi, La Operina (Rome, 1522): C.31.f.8.(1.)

We are delighted that this manuscript of Gargha’s Orationes is now part of our collections. The manuscript was presented to the British Library by Nicolas Barker, formerly Head of Conservation at the British Library, who had received it in turn from Vera Law (b. 1899, d. 1985), calligrapher and gilder. The manuscript can now be viewed in full on our Universal Viewer.


Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 February 2023

Magnificent margins in the Alexander Romance

One of the greatest achievements of medieval manuscript illumination, as well as one of the highlights of the British Library’s current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is the Bodleian Library's MS Bodley 264. Completed in Tournai (modern-day Belgium) in 1344, it contains the fullest version of the interpolated Old French Roman d'Alexandre, with some of the most vivid illustrations in any medieval romance. Perhaps most well-known are the border illustrations, remarkable for their panorama of medieval society and fantastic imagination.

Four miniatures. The top two both show armies on horseback. The lower left shows an army on horseback. The lower right shows a city under attack

Alexander’s campaigns against Darius, with musicians, jongleurs and archers in the upper and lower borders (Tournai, Flanders, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS Bodley 264, f. 51v

Manuscript page. Two miniature. Left: a group of people holding hands in a circle. Right: six people standing in conversation, the central figure has a golden bird perched on his forearm

Alexander’s companions dance and make merry, with musical notation; in the lower border figures in chivalric dress with animal heads dance a carole with maidens: MS Bodley 264, f. 181v

Sometimes the subjects in the borders mirror the action in the Alexander stories, but mostly there is little or no connection.  The subjects vary from medieval sports and games to daily activities like cooking and bathing, to sport and entertainment.

Left: a couple kiss. Right: a couple sit with a box between them

Romantic interludes in the border: MS Bodley 264, f. 76v

Miniature showing men in armour being eaten by sea monsters

Alexander’s army is attacked by ‘ypopatamos’; beneath, a dog chases a stag and people watch a puppet show remarkably like Punch and Judy: MS Bodley 264, f. 54v

Two children walking on wooden stilts

Children walking on stilts: MS Bodley 264, f. 65r

A man plays on a drum. A stag stands before him. Right: a woman gestures towards to children

A youth with a pipe and a drum plays to a pantomime stag with pointed slippers on its hind feet; a mother calls two children to watch: MS Bodley 264, f. 70r

Left: blind men holding each others shoulders as they are led by a child. Right: the blind men have clubs, one has been hit on the head by another while the wild boar remains unharmed

Blind men being led to a yard, where they try to kill a pig with clubs: MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

Nude figure walk towards a changing hut. Right: a servant carries water to a bathing tub in which two people are sat

Bathing: MS Bodley 264, f. 75r

left: a horse-drawn card with barrels and shields in it. right: a large pot over a fire, two men roast meat above the fire

A horse-drawn cart and roasting carcasses on an open fire: MS Bodley 264, f. 83v

Many of the border images are wildly improbable and difficult to categorise. We leave the following to our readers to interpret.

left: nude figures carry a spear and approach a target. Right: a man bed over with robes raised. A woman kneels a short distance away from him and shields her eyes from the view using her hands

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 56r

A furry, horned beast is seated in a chair. The chair is being pulled, using ropes, by a man towards a castle

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 68r

left: a man holds a stick for a dog. Right: a king on hoseback charges at a stag. The stag has a maiden seated on his back. Behind the maiden a furry and bearded human figure is seated, he is raising a club towards the horserider

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 69v

Two bearded figure riding donkeys.

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 72v

left: a man carries a drum while two men hold open the kings cloak. Right; two men carry a pole between them, Another follows with a nude figure carried over his shoulder

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 74r

Lastly, there are the ever-popular vengeful rabbits.

Manuscript page. Miniature showing soldiers with raised swords fighting winged beasts. Marginalia showing rabbits, or hares, with weopans attacking humans

Alexander and his army fighting griffins; in the lower border, rabbits wreak revenge on humans: MS Bodley 264, f. 81v

You can see this manuscript for yourself in our Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition, until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or on the door (subject to availability).

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 January 2023

Alexander the Great versus the elephants

Have you ever wondered how to defeat an army or a herd of wild elephants? Alexander the Great knew how, to judge by accounts (both historical and legendary) of his campaigns in the East. Elephants feature most prominently in Alexander's famous battle with King Porus of Inda in 326BC, as described by Plutarch, Arian and the later Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. Curtius’ Historia was translated into French, and illuminated copies were produced in considerable numbers in the 15th century, notably for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477), who modelled himself on Alexander.

Soldiers in armour with spears confront elephants with castles containing soldiers with arrows on their backs.  A castle in the background.

A battle between Alexander and Porus with elephants, in Quintus Curtius Rufus. Historia Alexandri magni, translated by Lucena: Burney MS 169, f. 165v

Curtius describes how Alexander and his men faced a terrifying force of 300 chariots, 30,000 foot soldiers and 85 elephants with castles on their backs, on the opposite bank of the river Hyaspedes. King Porus himself was mounted on a huge elephant that towered above the rest, decorated with silver and gold armour. Fortunately, Alexander and his troops were already familiar with these terrifying creatures, as he had earlier been presented with 56 elephants by King Omphis of Taxila.

Using his characteristic strategic genius, Alexander sent troops to cross the river further down in order to surprise his opponents. By attacking on two fronts, he restricted the elephants’ room to manoeuvre. Alexander’s great victory over Porus soon became the stuff of legend. The French Roman d’Alexandre en prose tells that he employed ‘ymages de laiton’ (bronze models of soldiers) filled with red hot coals, which he placed in iron chariots and sent in among the elephants. When they saw the burning embers and felt the scorching heat, the elephants fled in terror. A manuscript made in Bruges manuscript illustrates the burning soldiers in chariots facing the elephants.  

Two groups of soldiers on horseback with spears raised ride towards each other, model soldiers on fire standing on chariots, and elephants with towers and soldiers on their backs

The battle between Alexander and King Porus, with the elephants and bronze model soldiers filled with hot coals, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 51r

Legend has it that after another battle, a short period of friendship ensued, during which Porus took Alexander to see the wonders of India. But the truce was short-lived and Alexander finally killed Porus in single combat. Determined to continue his journey of conquest as far as the ocean, he encountered many strange and dangerous creatures, including a herd of ferocious elephants. The cunning Alexander, aware that elephants were afraid of the sound of squealing of pigs, sent into their midst a troop of horsemen, trumpeters and all the pigs he could find. The elephants fled in terror, pursued by the horsemen, who killed 980 of them and brought back their ‘teeth and horns’. This story is illustrated in a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en prose made in Paris around 1425, perhaps for a young owner, as it has startling, colourful images on almost every page.

Alexander and his army with trumpets and pigs with tusks facing elephants with trumpet-shaped trunks.

Alexander’s army with trumpets and pigs confronting the wild elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX  f. 57r

Alexander’s life story was incorporated into world histories such as the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, which encompassed all of human history from Creation to the reign of Julius Caesar. In this version of the Alexander legend, Porus and Alexander were exploring the far reaches of India when they made camp for the night near a forest, before finding that it was infested with fierce elephants. Porus told Alexander not to worry. He should gather together some ‘truie’ (sows), upset them so that they squealed loudly at the elephants, who would immediately flee in terror, fearing this noise more than anything.

Above, soldiers on horseback with helmets and swords and pigs beside them attack elephants

Alexander fighting with pigs against elephants (above), and meeting the talking trees of the Sun and the Moon and their Indian guardian (below), in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19699, f. 156r

Alexander on a horse with soldiers holding spears, chase pigs towards four elephants among trees

Alexander’s army with wild pigs confronting elephants in a forest, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Paris, late 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 133v

In a luxurious copy of the prose Roman d’Alexandre made for Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482), future queen of England, Alexander and his soldiers are shown attacking a group of elephants with spears; the pigs mentioned in the accompanying text are nowhere to be seen.

Alexander in armour with knights on horseback, use spears to wound two elephants standing among trees.  A starry sky.

Alexander’s army fighting elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 16v

This story must have circulated widely in England. In one manuscript of the Festial by John Mirk of Shropshire (1382–1414), the homily for the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist describes how bones and wood are used in making St John’s fire (Harley MS 2417, f. 42r). Mirk then adds a long digression on the origins of fire in ‘that countrey of grete hete’ where dragons breathe noxious gases and poison the water. This leads to a description of Alixander’s campaign in India:

...mony grete clerkes that hadden red of kyng Alysaunder how when he shulde have a batel wyth the kyng of Ynde and the kyng of Ynde browyte wyth hym mony olyfauntes beryng castels of tre (wood) on her bakkes.... Thene knewe alysau]nder the kynde (species) of olyfauntes that they dreden noo thyng moore the ȝarryng (squealing) of swyyn (swine). Therfor he made togedere all the sowes that myghte be geten and made to dryve hem so nygh the olifantes ...anoon they maden suche a ȝarryng all yfer that alle the olyfauntes flowen (fled) and casten down her castelles...

The subject then turns to dragons once again, and how they hate the stench of burning bones, so that a ‘boon fyr’ (the origin of the word, bonfire) could be used to chase them away.

Discover more about Alexander the Great by visiting the British Library's exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards this exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

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21 December 2022

Chi-rho pages for Christmas

It’s not something you’ll find on your average Christmas card, but the Chi-rho is a Christmas symbol that appears in some of the oldest surviving gospel-books. One of the most spectacular examples is the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. But this is far from the only Chi-rho page in the Library’s collection. With Christmas just around the corner, we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of our festive Chi-rhos and their rich meanings.

Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, with large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

What is a Chi-Rho page?

Chi-rho pages are a feature of Insular gospel-books. These are copies of the biblical accounts of the life of Christ in Latin, produced within the monastic culture that developed in Ireland, Britain and closely connected centres in the 7th-8th centuries (known as Insular in reference to ‘the Isles’).

The Chi-rho is the abbreviated name of Christ in Greek, spelled chi-rho-iota and written with the capital letters ‘X-P-I’. In Insular gospel-books there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, ‘Christi autem generatio sic erat’ (Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way). In the most magnificent examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria in the early 8th century, the letters fill almost the entire page with brilliant pattern.

Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, showing the intricately decorated letter 'X'
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

History of the Chi-rho page

The practice of abbreviating divine names, or nomina sacra, goes back to at least the 2nd century, when letters representing the name of Christ were employed as Christian symbols. Nomina sacra were commonly abbreviated in early Greek bibles as a way of showing reverence and making them stand out visually. For example, in the 6th-century Greek gospel-book the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (Cotton MS Titus C XV), the main text is written in silver ink while the nomina sacra are abbreviated and written in gold. Insular Chi-rho pages took this much older practice and expanded it to make the sacred name a major focus of decoration.

Detail of a Greek gospel-book written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment
Abbreviated nomina sacra written in gold ink, including ‘XC’ (Christ), ‘YC’ (Son), ‘ΘΥ’ (God) and ‘IC’ (Jesus), from a Greek gospel-book, the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 2v (detail)

The earliest surviving Chi-rho pages date from around 700, and they appear in gospel-books from Ireland, England and areas where Insular scribes were working or had strong influence. By contrast, most gospel-books produced in continental Europe followed the late antique practice of placing no or very little emphasis on the text of Matthew 1:18.

An interesting example of a continental gospel-book which has a Chi-rho page is the Schuttern Gospels (Add MS 47673), made at the Benedictine abbey of Schuttern in southwest Germany in the early 9th century. Schuttern was one of many monasteries in the Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area founded by Irish monks in the 7th century. Liutharius, the deacon who wrote the Schuttern Gospels, was probably a local judging by his name, and he wrote in a Carolingian minuscule script. Nevertheless, the decoration of the manuscript is strongly Insular, suggesting that the monastery’s early history still held major influence in its scriptorium.

Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, with the letter 'X' decorated with interlace
Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, Schuttern in southwest Germany, early 9th century: Add MS 47673, f. 19v

Although Chi-rho pages stopped appearing in English gospel-books after about the 8th century, they continued in other areas until much later. One of the latest surviving Chi-rho pages is in the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), made in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1138. You can read more about this fascinating manuscript, written by the 28-year-old scribe Máel Brigte and illuminated in an Irish-Scandinavian style, in our previous blogpost.

Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, with the 'X' decorated with brightly coloured animal interlace
Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

Symbolism of the Chi-rho page

Coming at the beginning of the narrative about Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, the Chi-rho is generally seen as a symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, or human conception and birth. In the Gospel of John the Incarnation of Christ is mystically described as the moment when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). By emphasising the word ‘Christ’ at the beginning of the Nativity account, the Chi-rho can be seen to literally illustrate the idea of the Word becoming flesh, especially since Insular gospel-books were written on parchment made from animal skin.

Yet the Chi-rho is also particularly evocative because the letter chi is in the shape of a cross, so it could signify both Christ’s name as well as his Crucifixion and its redemptive power. For Christians, the human birth of Christ is significant because it meant that he could die a human death and so save humanity from sin. Through its shape the letter chi poignantly connects these two important events.

Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, with a modestly decorated letter 'X'
Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, Brittany, late 9th century: Add MS 9381, f. 14v

The idea that the Chi-rho symbolises the living Word and the life-giving Cross perhaps explains why Insular Chi-rhos are often teeming with life. For example, in this gospel-book, made in Brittany in the early 10th-century and digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (Royal MS 1 A XVIII), animal heads with foliage sprouting from their mouths emerge from the end of each stroke of the letter chi. This gives the impression that the letter is bursting with life and abundance.

Chi-rho page with animal heads emerging from the ends of the strokes on the 'X'
Chi-rho page in a gospel-book from Brittany, early 10th century: Royal MS 1 A XVIII, f. 13r

A cryptic symbol

Greek was not widely known in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Both the use of Greek letters and abbreviation made the Chi-rho difficult to understand. This cryptic quality was probably part of its appeal, suggesting the mysterious nature of God. The Chi-rho was not simply a word but a symbol of something inexpressible.

Nevertheless, the Chi-rho proved too enigmatic for some scribes and readers, as shown by the garbled Chi-rho in a gospel-book made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century (Royal MS 1 B VII). Here it seems that the scribe mistook the Greek letter rho for a Latin letter ‘P’, and transliterated it to the Greek letter pi (Π). They also wrote the letter ‘H’ instead of ‘A’ at the beginning of the Latin word autem, perhaps misunderstanding the Irish convention of spelling the word with an added ‘h’ at the beginning, as hautem. The result is that instead of ‘XPI AU/tem’, the scribe has written ‘XΠI HU/tem’ – a string of letters that make no sense.

Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v (detail)

Discover more

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Lindisfarne Gospels book display
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

Looking at these majestic Chi-rho pages, we can get a sense of some of the awe, mystery and joy with which monastic scribes and readers regarded the birth of Christ many centuries ago. From everyone in the Medieval Manuscripts team, we wish you a very Happy Christmas!

Eleanor Jackson

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