THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

770 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

21 December 2019

Two Peters of Notre-Dame

Add comment

It has been eight months since tragedy struck Notre-Dame, the iconic cathedral of Paris, when fire broke out on its roof on 15 April 2019. The cornerstone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1163 (though construction on the site may have begun as early as 1160) and it was fully completed around 1250. But the presence of a religious community headed by the Bishop of Paris on the Île de la Cité – the island in the Seine at the heart of Paris – was already long-established. There had been a church or a cathedral there since possibly as early as the 4th century.

Moreover, at the time of the building of the new Gothic cathedral, the cathedral school of Notre-Dame enjoyed a far-reaching reputation, largely due to outstanding scholars such as Peter Lombard (d. 1160) and Peter Cantor (d. 1197). This resulted in close connections between the influential intellectual sphere of Paris and the English ecclesiastical and scholastic elite. Some of these connections are evident in surviving manuscripts that have been digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project

Large decorated initial C on a blue, square background, within which are two male human figures. The man on the left is seated, bearded and holding a scroll, and the other person is standing to his left and facing him.
Initial 'C(um omnes)', with a seated figure possibly representing Peter Lombard teaching a student, introducing the prologue to his Gloss on the Psalms: South-eastern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 54229, f. 3r

12th-century Paris was celebrated throughout Europe as the leading place for the study of theology and the liberal arts. One of the personalities that inspired this acclaim was the theologian Peter Lombard (d. 1160) . It was also largely due to him that the cathedral school of Notre-Dame became one of the main schools of the emerging University of Paris.

Originally from Lombardy in north-western Italy, Peter initially lacked any influential French contacts or relations. But by 1145 he had made such a name for himself as a teacher of theology that he was invited to be the magister (‘master’ or ‘teacher’) of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, and was appointed as Bishop of Paris shortly before his death.

A page of text in two columns, with text in red ink in both the outer and inner margins.
Peter Lombard’s commentary for Psalm 97 (98) beginning with a large blue initial 'C(antate Domino)', while the text of the Psalm itself is written in the margin in red: England, second half of the 12th century, BnF, Latin 17271, f. 189r

Peter’s most influential work, the Four Books of Sentences, became the standard theology textbook for much of the Middle Ages, but his commentaries on the Psalms were also exceptionally widely circulated. The speed with which his works were disseminated is illustrated by the two copies of his commentary on the Psalms digitised by the Polonsky England and France project (Add MS 54229 and BnF, Latin 17271) which were made in England, possibly during Peter’s own lifetime or shortly after his death. You can read more about the innovations in page layout that Peter Lombard’s commentary inspired in this article about the tradition of Glossed Psalters.

A page of text in two columns, beginning with a large, red, decorated initial.
Decorated initial 'V(erbum)' beginning the Verbum abbreviatum of Peter Cantor: Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 35180, f. 3r

During the first phase of the building of the new Notre-Dame cathedral, another exceedingly influential theologian called Peter became closely associated with the cathedral chapter. It is unclear when he arrived in Paris to teach, but around 1183 he had become the Cantor of Notre-Dame, and is therefore known as Peter Cantor, or Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). The position of Cantor was the second highest in rank of the members of the cathedral chapter. The Cantor’s work involved managing the activities of the choir: for example, supervising liturgical services and teaching the choristers. However, based on documentary evidence of his activities, it seems that Peter mainly focused on teaching theology and engaging in church government.

In the 1190s Peter assembled his teachings on practical morality developed during his long career as a theology lecturer into the work Verbum abbreviatum (roughly ‘Abridged sayings’). This text quickly became popular throughout Europe and almost 100 copies are known to have been in circulation during the medieval period.

Detail of a page of text in two columns, focusing on the explicit (that is, ending statement) written in red in the right-hand column.
The explicit of the Verbum abbreviatum written in red; southwestern England (Tewkesbury?), 4th quarter of the 12th century-1st quarter of the 13th century, Cotton MS Claudius E I, f. 173v

Two manuscripts containing the Verbum abbreviatum (Add MS 35180 and Cotton MS Claudius E I) were copied in England and are especially early examples of the text. Indeed, the oldest of the two (Cotton MS Claudius E I) might have been copied as early as the year of Peter Cantor’s death. This early date is suggested by the ending statement, or explicit, of the text:

‘[Here] ends the Verbum abbreviatum of Master Peter, the foremost Chanter of Paris, afterwards a novice of Longpont, in which place he died [as a] novice.’ 

(Explicit verbum abbreviatum magistri Petri primus cantoris Parisiensis, postea novicii Longipontis, in quo novicius defunctus est.)

This refers to the fact that Peter Cantor was elected dean of the cathedral chapter of Reims in 1196, but on his way there he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Longpont.  While there he became ill and died in January 1197. The precise details are unclear, but this explicit seems to suggest that shortly before his death he joined the Cistercian community at Longpont but died before he could take his vows.

Perhaps this news had been recently received by the scribe of the manuscript. In any case, it shows that details about the author, as well as copies of his texts, could spread quickly across the Channel to England.

          Emilia Henderson
          @minuscule_eth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

 

 

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

15 December 2019

Troy story 2

Add comment

We recently blogged about the Greek manuscripts that tell the tale of the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which ended in the destruction of the great city of Troy. We learned how this relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (if you haven’t already, catch up with Part 1 of this blog post). Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.

These blog posts are written to coincide with the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎), which features seven ancient and medieval manuscripts from the British Library. Check out the exhibition to learn more and to see these manuscripts in person.

A Renaissance manuscript with a large initial 'C' containing a picture of Aeneas, in classical-style armour, carrying a elderly man and leading a little boy by the hand.
A historiated initial showing Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his young son: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 73v

In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.

The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas' line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.

Picture from a Renaissance manuscript showing the fight between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus is on the ground and Aeneas is impaling him through the throat. They are surrounded by warriors watching the duel.
Aeneas killing Turnus: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 227v

Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain's pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.

Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas' great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called 'New Troy', which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.

A text page from a medieval manuscript with a city scape drawn faintly in the lower margin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History Of The Kings Of Britain: Royal Ms 13 A III, f. 14r

New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.

Text page from a medieval manuscript with an elaborate border of foliate and a miniature of knights fighting on horseback
John Lydgate, Troy Book, the opening to Book 3 with a miniature of Hector slaying Patroculus: Royal Ms 18 D II, f. 66v

The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.

Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.

A medieval manuscript with a double-page miniature of ships attacking a walled city.
Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (second redaction), the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea: Stowe Ms 54, ff. 82v-83r

From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times. Discover more about this dramatic myth and view these manuscripts in the British Museum’s  exhibition Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎).

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

12 December 2019

Troy story

Add comment

For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.

The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.

Men drag a giant horse statue into a walled city
The Trojan Horse: Italy, 1480s, Kings MS 24, f. 73v

However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.

What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.

A print of a stone sculpture of the head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, curly beard and hair
Engraving of a bust of Homer found at Baiae in 1780: Burney MS 86, f. v verso

The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.

Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.

A wooden board inscribed with Greek writing
Eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century AD, Add MS 33293

A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 13 of the Iliad: 1st century AD, Papyrus 732 (3)

Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 3 of the Odyssey: 1st century AD, Papyrus 271 (2)

These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.

This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.

Manuscript page in Greek, with lots of notes in the margins and between the lines of text
School-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, the 'Townley Homer': Eastern Mediterranean, probably 1059, Burney Ms 86, f. 240v

Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Read part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

23 November 2019

Happy anniversary to the Polonsky Project

Add comment Comments (1)

Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of our collaborative interpretative and digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  A year ago we met in Paris as part of a three-day international conference to celebrate two new bilingual websites that provide unprecedented access to some of the riches of our two national collections.  Thanks to generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation, each Library digitised 400 manuscripts made in either England or France before the year 1200.  You can view all 800 of them on a website hosted by the BnF, and if you wish, select two or more to examine side by side (view the digitised manuscripts on the BnF website).  

An image from a medieval manuscript, which depicts a robed man sitting at a desk, writing with a quill pen and a knife
A portrait of St Dunstan: Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

A second website, also fully bilingual, is hosted by the British Library (view the BL's interpretative website).  Here you can read 30 articles on various topics, such as English manuscript illumination, French manuscript illuminationmedicine, or history. Or, watch videos of Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. We also commissioned two animated films based on the story of the crane and the story of the whale from a medieval bestiary manuscript.  Some of the most popular films have been those on how to make a manuscript, commissioned from artist and calligrapher Patricia Lovett, with viewers spending an average of nearly 10 minutes on this topic. There’s also a film produced by the BnF, which explains the background to the project.

Taken together, over half a million individual pages have been viewed by people all over the world.  Early English manuscripts have been particularly popular.  We know that you are loyal viewers, too, with over 30% returning for another visit to the interpretative website, and with many of you reporting how you are using the resources in your teaching, or for your own research. We love to hear how you’ve been using the website and which features you’ve particularly enjoyed, so please let us know in the comments field below.  

We’ve received some great press coverage, including this BBC History podcast on the wonders of the Middle Ages, and a review in Hyperallergic. We have also been featured in La Revue Française de généalogie (April 2019), Les Veillées des Chaumières (May 2019), and Femme Actuelle Jeux (May 2019).

A detail from a medieval Bible manuscript, with an image of Christ and the Virgin Mary inside a decorated letter O
Christ in dialogue with the Virgin Mary, from the Chartres Bible: Chartres, 1146-1155, BnF Latin 116, f. 12r

The first printing of our project book by curators Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, has sold out, and has just been reprinted.  It is also available as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200.  Charlotte Denoël and Francesco Siri are currently editing the Paris conference proceedings, and Charlotte Denoël has recently published an article 'Le programme Polonsky France-Angleterre, 700-1200: manuscrits médiévaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library: bilan et perspectives', in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2019), 3-10. 

Cette collaboration entre la BnF et la British Library a permis d’importantes avancées technologiques: désormais, la BnF est en mesure de proposer dans Gallica marque blanche, l’infrastructure numérique utilisée pour le site web du projet, ainsi que pour les nombreux autres sites créés par la BnF pour ses partenaires souhaitant disposer d’une bibliothèque numérique sur le modèle de Gallica, de nouvelles fonctionnalités, comme le visualiseur IIIF et le multilinguisme.

Nous espérons à présent que de nouvelles collaborations et les retours des utilisateurs sur les deux sites permettront d’actualiser et d’enrichir le corpus initial du projet. 

Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed and helped publicise the websites, and happy anniversary!


Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project


In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

28 October 2019

The Lindisfarne Gospels: Turning over a new leaf

Add comment

Fans of the Lindisfarne Gospels will be excited to hear that we have just turned the page, so you can now see a new opening on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This time we are showing some of the manuscript's text pages, ff. 82v-83r, which contain the account of Christ’s arrest in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 26:39-55).

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 82v

These pages showcase the Lindisfarne Gospels’ stately script, one of the finest surviving examples of the formal calligraphy used for high status books in England and Ireland in the 7th-9th centuries. This script, known as Insular half-uncial, first developed in Ireland and is shared with masterpieces of Irish book art such as the Book of Durrow and Book of Kells. Insular half-uncial is a large, round, imposing script that could only be written by highly trained scribes. They had to work slowly and meticulously, holding the pen vertically and paying attention to details such as serifs and head strokes.

According to a colophon written in the 10th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels was created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded around 634 by the Irish missionary St Aidan, who brought to Northumbria the traditions of Irish monasticism and book production. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria officially declared allegiance to the Roman Church, but the Irish missionaries left an enduring legacy in the script of manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.    

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 83r

The pages on display also give you the chance to admire the manuscript's ground-breaking Old English translation. Aldred, the 10th-century priest who wrote the colophon, also added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin text, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English. Look carefully at these pages and you might see some words that you recognise. For example, on the second line of the second column on f. 83r, the Latin word 'gladium' is translated as 'suord' (modern English, sword). Or on the fifth-from-last line of the first column on f. 82v, the Latin word 'pater' is translated as 'fader' (modern English, father). 

Come and see the Lindisfarne Gospels and other spectacular manuscripts from our collection for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 October 2019

The Nine Worthy Women

Add comment

In the late medieval and early modern eras, heraldic collections often contained, alongside contemporary examples, the imaginary coats of arms of men from medieval romance and legend or of kings who lived before the age of heraldry. Prominent among these attributed coats of arms were those of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’ (Les Neuf Preux), a group of three pagan (Classical), three Jewish, and three Christian leaders first described in the early 14th-century French poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques du Languon (found, for example, in Harley MS 3992). The Nine Worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. At the beginning of one late 15th-century book of heraldry (Harley MS 2169), they were introduced as ‘The IX Worthy Conqwerourys’, and were identified (from left to right) as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (one of the leaders of the First Crusade).

Image 1 - Nine Male Worthies

The arms of the Nine Worthies (4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

In the late 14th century, a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women (Les Neuf Preuses) consisted of queens and female leaders who were also associated with military prowess. This grouping was much less fixed than that of the male worthies. For instance, the majority of the Nine Worthy Women who were part of the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VI at Paris in 1431 were queens of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology who, according to medieval sources such as the legendary travel memoir of John Mandeville, governed the land of Amozoyne where ‘dwellyth no man’. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe), who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV.

Image 2 - Amazons

The Amazons in Mandeville’s Travels (1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 30r

Another version of the Nine Worthy Women features at the beginning of Harley MS 6090, a late 16th- or early 17th-century English heraldic collection. In that manuscript the three Classical queens and female leaders are: Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, whose arms feature the ‘Aegis’ (a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa) of her Greek equivalent Athena; Semiramis, a mythical queen of Babylon; and Tomyris, a legendary ruler of the Massagetae, who defeated Cyrus the Great. 

Image 3 - Nine Worthy Women [1]

The arms of Minerva, Semiramis and Tomyris (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 3v

The three Jewish queens and female leaders are Deborah, a prophetess and judge of the Israelites; Jael, who killed the commander of an enemy Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg (of which six are displayed on her arms) into his temple; and Judith, who decapitated Holofernes (his head is displayed on her arms), the leader of an Assyrian army that occupied Israel.

Image 4 - Nine Worthy Women [2]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4r

The three Christian queens and female leaders are Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of King Henry I, who initiated a war against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, after he usurped the throne; Isabel I of Castile [also known as Elizabeth I of Spain] (1451–1504), under whose rule Spain was united and the Emirate of Granada conquered; and Joanna II (1371–1435), Queen of Naples, who managed to re-establish herself as Queen after she had been imprisoned by her husband, James of Bourbon.

Image 5 - Nine Worthy Women [3]

The arms of Empress Matilda, Isabel I of Castile, and Joanna II of Naples (late 16th or early 17th century) (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4v

The arms of the Nine Worthy Women in Harley MS 6090 were most likely copied from John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, first printed in 1586. Their audience would have been familiar with these women through contemporary and medieval works that praised their achievements, such as De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio (as in Harley MS 4923) and the works of Christine de Pizan (for example, Harley MS 4431).

Image 6 - Minerva

Minerva giving arms to her followers in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (c. 1410–1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 102v

Why are the female worthies so prominent in Harley MS 6090, while the male worthies are absent? Perhaps they were particularly popular among English authors. In an article published in 1946, Celeste Turner Wright pointed out that, during and following the reigns of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English authors often cited the Nine Worthy Women to justify female governance, to prove women's ability in national affairs, and to attack the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne ('The Elizabethan Female Worthies', Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628–43).

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

Add comment

Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project                                           

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

26 September 2019

Discovering Sacred Texts launch

Add comment

This week the British Library has launched its latest online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collections. The new website includes over 250 digitised collection items, teachers’ resources, short films and articles. Nine faiths are featured: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism.

Discovering Sacred Texts also includes many spectacular medieval manuscripts. For our readers, here’s a handy guide to some of the specially written articles focusing on pre-1600 western manuscripts on the site.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus with four columns of stately Greek script.
The Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, Eastern Mediterranean, early 4th century: Add MS 43725, f. 244v

The Christian Bible is formed of numerous books that were written over hundreds of years. Early Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures, which they characterised as the Old Testament, and added to them a collection of texts recounting the lives and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers, called the New Testament. At first, the Christian Bible circulated in Greek but before long it was translated into a wide variety of languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic and Latin.

Find out more about the formation and spread of the Christian Bible in The Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A page from a Greek manuscript with dashes and other small lines around the words
Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation, Eastern Mediterranean or Southern Italy, late 10th century: Arundel MS 547, f. 9r

Copies of the entire Bible were rare for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Portions of the Bible, such as the Gospels, Psalms and Apocalypse, were regularly produced as separate volumes. The text was often shaped to suit the readers’ needs. For example, passages might be re-ordered to form a lectionary, combined to produce a harmonised text, or paraphrased as a summary version.

Explore the different contents and uses of biblical manuscripts in Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A decorated manuscript showing scenes of Christ and the Apostles
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, f. 28r

Unlike in other Abrahamic religions, Christian sacred texts were often produced with extensive illustrations. The Church justified images as a useful tool for teaching people about scripture. Rich decoration could also emphasise the importance of the biblical text itself, with shimmering gold evoking the glory of heaven. Decorated letters, either with abstract or figurative designs, might also serve the practical purpose of marking the beginnings of texts.

Learn more about the development and functions of images in medieval biblical manuscripts in Biblical Illumination, by Kathleen Doyle.

A decorated page with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and below inside the decorated intial, a picture of a woman praying
The Annunciation with a patron portrait, the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, 15th century, England: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 34r

The most popular book of the late Middle Ages was the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book for the laity. While their contents vary, the prayers often focus on the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, with shorter prayers included for a wide variety of saints. Many Books of Hours also include images, both to appeal to the eye and to deepen the spiritual experience of prayer. Often, they were carefully customised to reflect their owner's personal interests.

Discover the different texts and images that appear in Books of Hours in Medieval prayer-books, by Eleanor Jackson.

A text page with large initials and a border decorated with flowers and vines
Wycliffite Bible, England, Early 15th century: Arundel MS 104, f. 251r

The Bible was translated into a wide range of languages from an early date. The oldest known translation of a biblical text into English is the Old English translation of the Psalms added between the lines of the Vespasian Psalter in the mid-9th century. The entire Bible was first translated into English by the followers of the reformer John Wycliffe in the last decades of the 14th century, at which point it provoked considerable controversy.

Find out more about medieval translations of the Bible in The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity, by Annie Sutherland.

The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. On the lower right a monk kneels in prayer.
Coldingham Breviary, England, 1270-80: Harley MS 4664, f. 125r

Women played an important role in Christianity from the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and three women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ served as exemplars of holiness and were often depicted in medieval manuscripts.

Learn more about attitudes to women in Women and Christianity, by Christine Joynes.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Christ, covered in bloody wounds, kneeling before his tomb. In the lower margin there is a handwritten note.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

King Henry VIII formally broke with the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the decades that followed, the dissolution of the monasteries and programmes of Protestant reform led to the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts. Yet Henry himself remained devoted to medieval religious traditions and he owned a large number of Latin devotional manuscripts.

Learn more about Henry’s manuscripts and the consequences of his break with the Roman Church in Henry VIII and the Reformation, by Susan Doran.

A group photo, standing outside the Library's Treasures Gallery
Some of the British Library's curators at the Discovering Sacred Texts launch event on Monday

As well as these ancient and medieval-focused articles, there are lots of other fascinating articles about the Library’s diverse collection on the Discovering Sacred Texts web-space. We hope you enjoy exploring!

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval