Medieval manuscripts blog

842 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

06 June 2021

Caption competition time

It's time to put on your thinking caps again. What do you imagine is happening here?

This scene is found in a manuscript of Les Grandes chroniques de France, made in Paris sometime between 1332 and 1350 (Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 17r). We know that it was made for John the Good, duke of Normandy (1332–1350) and subsequently King John II of France (1350–1364), probably before his accession to the French throne.

You can make your suggestions in the comments box below or via Twitter to @BLMedieval. We will publish or retweet the best ones.

A manuscript illumination showing a messenger kneeling on the right, dressed in red robes, presenting a letter to a king wearing a crown, with another figure standing behind him

 

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20 May 2021

Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint

Having seen all of the five-star reviews, like many of you we are looking forward to seeing the new exhibition at the British Museum, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, which opens on 20 May for three months to 22 August. If you visit, you’ll see five British Library manuscripts in various sections (these are some five-star items too!). In the words of Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition: ‘The British Library manuscripts are some of the highlights of the exhibition, and help to illuminate the Becket story’. 

Thomas Becket (1120–1170) was an archbishop of Canterbury who came into conflict with King Henry II of England over the rights of the Church. In The Rise and Fall of Thomas Becket section, a 14th-century English manuscript depicts Becket, wearing his bishop’s mitre and holding the staff of office, in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table. In the caption, Henry is called ‘the son of Queen Matilda’, indicating his right to the throne through his mother. 

A medieval manuscript page showing Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table
Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table: Royal MS 20 A II, ff. 7v-8r

On 29 December 1170, a group of Henry’s knights murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, causing great outrage across Europe. For more on why they were there, and whether they were acting on the King’s orders, read the British Museum’s blogpost: Who killed Thomas Becket? After his death, Becket was honoured as a saint and Canterbury became a major pilgrimage centre.

One of the most famous images of the murder itself is featured in the Murder in the Cathedral section of the exhibition. In a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters, the story of Becket’s murder is told in four scenes, beginning with a messenger announcing the knights’ arrival while Becket is at table, with the knights conversing outside. In the register below is the murder itself, with one of the knights slicing through the bishop’s skull with his sword. A bear on this knight’s shield may indicate that this is Reginald Fitzurse (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). Finally pilgrims kneel before Becket’s shrine, seeking to get as close to the saint as possible. This image accompanies a letter of John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was one of the eye-witnesses to the murder.

This manuscript was digitised recently as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project, and you can read more about it on the project website.

Medieval manuscript page with the story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes
The story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes, in a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

Another well-known image features in the Making of a Saint section, in which Becket is laid in his tomb. It is one of five full-page miniatures (another is a scene of his murder) inserted into a Latin Psalter, to which a translation in Anglo-Norman French was added above the Latin to the first part of the Psalms. In the exhibition, the pages on display show the entombment of Becket opposite the beginning of Psalm 18, with the French added above the text.

Medieval manuscript double-page showing the Psalter text and a picture of the entombment of Becket
Becket being laid in his tomb, in a Psalter: Harley MS 5102, ff. 16v-17r

The 14th-century Stowe Breviary, a service book adapted for use in Norwich, is also displayed in this section. The Sanctorale section of the book includes images of saints next to their relevant feasts. It is imperfect, so the feast of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December is lacking, but the feast celebrating the translation (or transfer) of Becket’s body to the new Trinity Chapel in July 1220 is illustrated with monks lowering his body into the new shrine.

Detail of the initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel
Initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel, in the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r (detail)

However, Becket’s cult was eventually suppressed by King Henry VIII of England. A Royal Proclamation of 16 November 1538 issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell denied that Becket was a saint and ordered that his images should be removed from churches, that his feast should not be observed, and that his name should be ‘rased and put out of all [of] the books’. This proclamation has been applied to the text (but not the image) of the July feast in the Stowe Breviary, with the name of the saint ‘Thomas’ erased in the red rubric right next to the initial and throughout the text, although it is still visible as light brown letters.

The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary
The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r

The fifth British Library manuscript reflects this edict even more vividly, appearing in the Becket and the Tudors section. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, the full-page image of Becket has survived, but the facing prayers to the saint have been more than erased, and instead were cut out completely to remove them from the book.

Medieval manuscript double-page with a picture of the martyrdom of Becket on the left and the parchment cut away at the right
Image of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket with prayers cut out, from a Book of Hours: Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

Together, these manuscripts show how Becket rose to prominence as a major saint during the Middle Ages and then fell from favour during the reforms of the Tudor period. You can view them in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website. If you can make it to London, we hope you enjoy the wonderful exhibition!

Kathleen Doyle

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19 May 2021

The Master of Edward IV

The British Library continues to acquire medieval manuscripts with important research potential to enhance the national collection. You may have seen that last year we announced the acquisition of the Lucas Psalter (Add MS 89428), a fascinating late medieval Psalter made in Bruges for an English patron, which contains the added arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460-1539) of Suffolk, the secretary to Jasper Tudor, and Solicitor General under Henry VII. Now that the Library has reopened, we have digitised the manuscript which you can view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

A page from the Lucas Psalter with the arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas
A hymn from the Lucas Psalter with the arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas: Add MS 89428, f. 12r

The Psalter includes eight large finely painted initials that are hitherto unknown examples of the work of an artist known as the Master of Edward IV. The Master of Edward IV was first identified by art historian Friedrich Winkler in 1915 and named by him after two volumes of a Bible historiale produced for Edward IV in 1479, now in the British Library (Royal MS 18 D ix and Royal MS 18 D x). Subsequently, the Master of Edward IV was credited with the illustration of many other manuscripts ranging in date from the 1470s to 1500. A study by Bodo Brinkmann in 1997 attributed forty-seven manuscripts and twenty separate leaves to him. 

Miniature of a king on horseback with an entourage in a scenic landscape
Adonijah, the fourth son of King David, assuming a royal state, with decorated borders and the arms of Edward IV: Royal MS 18 D X, f. 68r

The large majority of these works are illustrations of vernacular and often historical texts. The Master of Edward IV is known for his finely painted figures and landscapes, and his talent for compositional invention and concise narrative. His work is clearly identifiable in the Lucas Psalter, in the distinctive carefully executed figures in groups and in a wide range of poses. His figures typically have well-defined faces, with full red lips, rouged cheeks, and distinctive, somewhat messy or unkempt hair, even on royal figures. In the Psalter, for example, these facial features and hairstyles are apparent in the figure of King David and even of God the Father.

King David with a fool, dressed like a jester
King David and the Fool at Psalm 52 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 72r (detail)

The Master’s characteristic and relatively narrow palette of salmon pink, green lake, grey-blue, and a fully saturated azure is also apparent throughout the miniatures. These colours often are supplemented by brown highlighted in gold, to imitate gold cloth or in backgrounds. Most colours were applied with prominent brushstrokes that add texture and bulk to the forms.

Moreover, even though the miniatures are typically only six lines long, they are delicately and precisely executed, with attention to interior architectural features in atmospheric perspective. The landscape background of Psalm 68 is particularly fine, with a supplicant figure immersed in water, illustrating the Psalm text, ‘Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul’. Here we see the artist’s mastery of mirror-like water, distinctive rocks in the path, and bushes with subtle gold highlights. 

A figure submerged in water to the waist, holding up his arms in supplication before God
King David in water at Psalm 68 in the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 84v (detail)

The composition and subject of these initials often are innovative and unusual. For example, the Beatus initial of Psalm 1 features God the Father with a grey beard and wearing a papal tiara in heaven being worshipped by standing angels, with finely painted red cherubim surrounding a golden background. 

Decorated initial containing a picture of God the Father surrounded by angels
Figure of God the Father at the beginning of Psalm 1 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 12v (detail)

A much more common subject for this Psalm is David with his harp in prayer before God, reflecting an interpretation of the Blessed Man as David, or David as the author of the Psalms. This is the image that appears in a contemporaneous Hours, also made in Bruges for an English patron, painted by the Master of Anthony of Burgundy (Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis MS E 182, f. 7r).

Picture of David praying to God in the Lewis Psalter
David praying to God at the beginning of Psalm 1: Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis MS E 182, f. 7r (Public Domain)

Similarly, the depiction of David in the water clothed and without a crown at Psalm 68 is unusual, and may allow the reader to imagine himself as the supplicant praying for deliverance (see image above).

As in Psalm 1, the image illustrating Psalm 109 pictures God the Father, here with Christ, but against a shimmering gold background rather than in the more common micro-architectural setting (as in the Lewis Psalter, above), indicating that this is an otherworldly image of heaven. 

Illustration of God the Father and Christ
God the Father and Christ from Psalm 109 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 140r (detail)

Now that the Lucas Psalter is in the collection of the British Library and fully digitised online, it is possible to admire and compare the works of the Master of Edward IV as never before. We hope that this will inspire new research into this fascinating artist in the future. 

The Lucas Psalter was purchased by the British Library with generous support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library and the British Library Collections Trust.

For the most recent discussion of this Master’s work, we recommend Scot McKendrick’s article ‘Contextualising the art and innovations of the Master of Edward IV in the Blackburn Hours (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Hart MS 20884)’, in A British Book Collector: Rare Books and Manuscripts in the R.E. Hart Collection, ed. by Cynthia Johnston (London: University of London, 2021), and his earlier exhibition catalogue with Thomas Kren, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, ed. by Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003), pp. 295-305, which is freely available from the Getty Publications Virtual Library.

Kathleen Doyle

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01 May 2021

Caption this

Have you missed our caption competitions? In that case, you're in for a treat today. The rules are simple. Come up with a witty caption for the image below, and send it via the comments section at the foot of this blogpost or on Twitter to @BLMedieval. There are no prizes, only the kudos of showing off your incredible wit/imagination/creativity.

The page in question is found in the spectacular Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, f. 273r), made in Liège in the 14th century. You can explore the entire manuscript for yourself on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Good luck!

 

A manuscript illumination showing the king of love sitting in a tree. He is flanked by two musicians, and aims his arrows at a couple sitting below

Marginal miniature of the king of love sitting in a tree with two musicians, aiming his arrows at a couple sitting below: Stowe MS 17, f. 273r

 

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20 April 2021

‘Frenssh’ as it was ‘spak’ in medieval England

In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s prioress is accused of speaking an inferior version of French learned in Stratford rather than in Paris:

Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

(And she spoke French fluently and elegantly,
After the school of Stratford-at-Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknown.)

Illustration of an elegantly dressed nun
An elegantly dressed nun playing a musical instrument in the Queen Mary Psalter, London or East Anglia, 1310–1320: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 177r

In the same vein, there are examples of French medieval commentators criticising the way French was spoken in England as it evolved from being the mother tongue of royalty and the nobles who crossed the Channel after the Norman Conquest to being an acquired status symbol, as it was for Chaucer’s prioress. A separate dialect known as Anglo-Norman diverged from the French used in mainland France during this period. Spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary were influenced by the Norman French spoken by William the Conqueror and his followers, and by the existing vernacular, Old English, still used by much of the local population.

French was one of the languages of both spoken and written communication in England for an extended period from 1066 onwards and it was still used in some legal contexts up to the end of the 17th century. The fact that French was widely used is evident in the quantity of word-pairs in modern English – where two words exist with same meaning, one derived from an Old English root word and the other from a French one (e.g., thoughtful/pensive; kingdom/realm; enough/sufficient, walk/march). Such examples show how large numbers of French words were adopted during the Middle Ages, hugely enriching the vocabulary of English and changing the language fundamentally.

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts in Anglo-Norman French contains two texts, the Computus and the Bestiary adapted from Latin works by the earliest named French author, Philippe de Thaon, in the 12th century. The latter was dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain (d. 1151), wife of King Henry I of England. On line 4 of the page pictured below de Thaon confirms that he has written en franceise raisun (in the French language).

A text page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput in Latin and French
A page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput with text in Latin and French, England, 1100-1150: Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 41v

During the reign of Henry II (r. 1154–1189) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, literature in French flourished at the English royal court, though surviving manuscripts from this period contain mostly devotional texts, such as the Psalter in French verse below. Latin remained an important written language, particularly in the Church, and so the corresponding text in Latin is written in red in the margins.

A text page from a Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse
A Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, England or France, 1175-1225: Harley MS 4070, f. 2r. In the upper margin someone has added ‘Cest sauter en fraunceys est’ (This Psalter is in French)

Written legends, chronicles and other literary texts in Anglo Norman survive in greater numbers from the 13th century onwards, when romances surrounding heroes like King Arthur were popular. It is not always possible to establish if surviving manuscripts were produced in England or in Normandy, as many nobles and English royalty held territory on both sides of the channel.

Guy of Warwick, a now almost forgotten hero but quite the superstar in medieval England, is the subject of an early written romance in Anglo-Norman pictured below. Beginning life as a humble page to the Earl of Warwick, Guy becomes a knight and performs numerous chivalric deeds throughout Europe and the East in order to win the hand of the earl’s daughter, his beloved Felice. But he has no sooner married than he abandons his wife and renounces the wealth and power he has gained to become a hermit, devoting his life to God.

The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik
The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik, England or France, 1225-50: Add MS 38662, f. 1r

Though the 13th-century text above is not illustrated, an episode from Guy’s legend is pictured in the lower margins of the Taymouth Hours, which includes some prayers in Anglo-Norman French. Across several pages are a series of graphic, comic-strip style illustrations of one of Guy’s many swashbuckling adventures. Fighting on the side of the Emperor of Constantinople, he meets a lion that is being pursued by a ferocious dragon. Taking up his sword, he kills the dragon with one blow, and so the lion becomes his faithful follower, never leaving his side and even lying at the foot of his bed each night. The story must have been familiar enough to medieval audiences to require little explanation as only the caption, ‘Gwi de Warwik’, accompanies the action (beneath the images on ff. 14r and v). The spelling ‘Gwi’ instead of French Gui (for Guy) features the English letter ‘w’, not used in French.

A collage of scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion from the Taymouth Hours
Scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion, the Taymouth Hours, ?London, mid-14th century: Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 12v-14v. Guy riding on his white horse (f. 12v) sees the dragon attacking the lion (f. 13r); the lion watches (f. 13v) as Guy slays the dragon with his lance (f. 14r); and the lion follows Guy as he rides away (f. 14v).

Tales of the early kings of Britain were also popular among French-speaking nobility and royalty in both England and France, judged by the manuscripts that survive. An illustrated copy of the Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle of Britain that includes legendary characters like King Arthur and Merlin, survives from the mid-14th century. At the end is an update to the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-77), containing the following words:

‘Apres li regne sun fiz qe or est Ke dieu li garde se il plest Edward le noble conqueror ki fort et pruz est’
(After him [Edward II] reigned his son - may God keep him if he pleases - Edward the noble conqueror who is strong and brave).

Here the scribe uses ‘ke’ alternating with ‘qe’ for the French que (that), and variant spellings, including ‘sun’ for French son (his) and ‘pruz’ for preux (brave), which provide evidence that vowels were pronounced differently in Anglo-Norman and Continental French by this time.

The coronation of King Arthur from the Roman de Brut
The coronation of King Arthur, Roman de Brut, England, 1338-40: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

As English regained its position as the dominant written language in England, literature in French was replaced by the works of authors like Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate who wrote in Middle English. Nevertheless, French continued to be used in some contexts including the law courts for a considerable period.

A number of 12th-century manuscripts containing Anglo-Norman French were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. You can read more about the use of French on both sides of the Channel before 1200 in our article on the Polonsky project site.

Chantry Westwell

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15 April 2021

A newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey

In 1538, the Cistercian abbey of St Mary at Byland in Yorkshire surrendered its house to King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who was dissolving all of England’s religious houses around this time. The abbey was founded in 1153 in a remote area of the North Yorkshire Moors. This location was particularly suitable for Cistercian monks, since their order encouraged them to seek solitude at desolate and wild locations. The abbey grew to become one of England’s largest Cistercian monasteries and amassed a magnificent library of most likely hundreds of books. With Byland Abbey’s dissolution, however, its library became forever dispersed. Until now, only a small number of its manuscripts have been rediscovered. However, in our ongoing Harley cataloguing project, we have identified a previously unknown Byland Abbey manuscript. In this blogpost, we will explore this discovery further.

A watercolour, showing a gateway, with behind it the ruins of an abbey, representing Byland.
A watercolour of Byland Abbey, as seen through its gateway, by John Chessell Buckler (1793–1894): Add MS 37120/9

The MLGB3 website records twenty-six manuscripts and manuscript fragments that have been identified from the library of Byland Abbey. Many of these manuscripts are now kept at the British Library. Most famous among these is a theological manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XX) which features ghost stories that were written by one of the abbey’s monks in the early 15th century. You can read about these spine-chilling tales in our previous blogpost.

Other Byland Abbey manuscripts include religious works such as a 13th-century copy of the Verbum Abbreviatum [Abridged Word] (Add MS 35180), a manual on moral theology by the French theologian Peter Cantor (d. 1197); a late 12th- or early 13th-century copy of the Historica Scolastica (Arundel MS 368), a work on biblical history by the French theologian Petrus Comestor (d. 1178); and a 12th-century copy of the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum [Deeds of the Bishops of the English] (Harley MS 3641) by the Benedictine monk and historian William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. in or after 1142).

A large red initial ‘P’ with penwork decoration in the same colour at the beginning of William of Malmesbury’s history of the deeds of English bishops.
The opening of William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Byland, 2nd half of the 12th century): Harley MS 3641, f. 1r

To these identified manuscripts from Byland Abbey, we can now add a Bible from the second quarter of the 13th century (Harley MS 2807). The manuscript of almost 340 parchment leaves is ornamented with decorated initials throughout. Strikingly for a manuscript from a Cistercian house from this period, some of these initials also contain illustrations. Cistercian manuscripts, in line with the order’s ideals of austerity and simplicity, typically only feature restricted forms of decoration at this date. The order issued statutes between 1145 and 1151, and in 1202, which stipulated that letters should be made of one colour and contain no figurative images. Only one of Byland’s identified manuscripts features figurative images. This is a 12th-century Psalter (York, Minster Library, MS XVI.I.7) with two initials containing dragons that combat human figures. The Harley manuscript, in contrast, has three decorated initials, of which two are elaborate and depict identifiable historical and biblical figures.

The first of the decorated letters in the Harley manuscript appears at the beginning of a prefatory letter by St Jerome (c. 342–420), known for his work on the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Here an initial ‘F’ features a depiction of St Jerome at his writing desk.

A blue and red initial with a tonsured figure in a dark blue habit seated at a writing desk, holding a scroll in one hand and a quill in the other
St Jerome at his writing desk in a decorated initial ‘F’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 3r

Another example of the manuscript’s illustrations can be found at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where the initial ‘I’ features scenes from the Creation, with, below that, a depiction of the Crucifixion.

A green initial ‘I’ with six panels that represent scenes from the Creation, and in the lower margin, a seventh panel of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist next to Christ on the Cross.
Scenes from the Creation and Crucifixion in a decorated initial ‘I’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 5v

Further, an initial ‘I’ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark features a horned mask at the top and a three-faced crowned head upside-down at the bottom.

A blue and red initial ‘I’ with a horned grotesque on top of the letter, and below the letter, upside down, a three-faced crowned head that seems to be breathing fire out of two of its mouths.
An initial decorated ‘I’ with grotesques at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 283v

Until now, little was known about the manuscript’s origin and ownership before it reached the library of Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). Its only known owner was William Petyt (1636–1707), antiquary of Middle Temple and Keeper of the Tower Records, who added his coat of arms and a title-page in 1665.

The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, including his coat of arms, mantle, helmet, crest, and motto, coloured with red, pink, and gold.
The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, added in 1665 to f. 1r of Harley MS 2807

In re-cataloguing the Bible manuscript, however, we have found two previously unnoticed erased inscriptions written on empty pages at the end of the volume. More importantly, with the help of UV light, we have been able to decipher both of these.

One inscription is written in a 13th-century script and confirms Byland Abbey’s ownership in a Latin formula that can be found in various of its other manuscripts: ‘Liber Sancte Marie de Bellalanda’ [The Book of St Mary of Byland]. You can compare this inscription with the nearly identical ownership inscription that is visible in the second image of this blogpost (at the top of f. 1r of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum in Harley MS 3641).

13th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 13th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 339r

The other inscription also confirms Byland’s ownership, but it is written in a 15th-century script and gives the monastery’s location in English: ‘Liber Beate Marie de Byland’. This ownership formula can only be found in one other manuscript (now Manchester, John Rylands Library, Lat. 153). Both inscriptions may have been added by the same 15th-century librarian at the abbey.

15th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 15th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 338v

These inscriptions leave little doubt that Harley MS 2807 was present at Byland Abbey soon after its production, and was kept there for hundreds of years, probably until the monastery’s dissolution. The identification of the manuscript’s provenance contributes to the efforts of scholars to reconstruct the monastic libraries that were dispersed in King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Further research into the manuscript may shed new light on book production by Cistercian monasteries in Northern England, and on their changing views on the use of decoration in the books they preserved.

We will keep posting on the findings that we are making in our Harley cataloguing project, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen
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13 April 2021

Decorating the Decretum

Church law, known as canon law (from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’), sets out the rules governing Church organization and Christian practice. In the early Christian period different types of rules, such as the decisions of councils, papal letters and episcopal statutes were circulated separately. But in the middle of the 12th century, a legal scholar called Gratian sought to systematise and harmonise these decisions by bringing them together in one volume. His work, generally known as the Decretum Gratiani sive Concordantia Discordantium Canonum (the Decretals of Gratian or concordance of discordant canons), became the first general textbook of canon law. The Decretum was the first of six volumes of canon law produced between the 12th and 14th centuries, and formed the main basis of Church law until the early 20th century.

The work quickly became a fundamental textbook for students and teachers of law, and several hundred medieval copies of the Decretum survive today. The text itself features case studies relating to a wide range of topics, including ecclesiastical administration, marriage and the Sacraments. These cases (or causae) describe various situations and develop questions from them.

Manuscript illustration of a pope with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, France, 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 10 D VIII, f. 133v (detail)

Very often, Gratian’s text is accompanied by later commentaries, used to interpret aspects of the cases discussed in the main text. These glossed copies typically feature a distinctive page layout in which Gratian’s text appears in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by the commentary.

In illuminated copies, decoration assists in distinguishing various sections of the text by illustrating each case with a decorated or historiated initial. For example, in an elaborate copy made in Barcelona, a case (causa 14) concerning the receipt of funds by clerics begins with an image of the pope sitting with an open book instructing tonsured men, while money changes hands to the left. In this copy each of the six questions also begins with a large initial in gold that corresponds to one in the surrounding gloss indicating the start of the commentary on that question.

A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, Barcelona, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 201v

Sometimes the subjects of the initials do not relate to the text directly. The beginning of Part I of the Decretum in this French copy probably made in Sens features a Channel-style initial with naked men and lions or dogs clambering amongst the structure of the letter ‘H’(umanum) (human). In these cases, the initials may have served primarily to help a reader find and remember the place of relevant cases or other divisions more quickly, instead of illustrating them. 

Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, , probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r
An illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Detail of an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r

In this way, medieval artists were able to make these legal manuscripts beautiful as well as useful. If you would like to find out more about medieval legal texts, take a look at our article on Legal manuscripts in England and France.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 April 2021

Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal

One of the most glorious celebrations of the feast of Easter in a medieval manuscript is surely the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal. In November 2020 we took a detailed look at this page and its beautiful artwork for the BBC Radio 4 Moving Pictures programme, which you can still listen to on the BBC website. If you didn’t get chance to listen to the programme at the time, or even if you did, we think it would make perfect seasonal listening for this Easter weekend.

The Resurrection of Christ from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
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)

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).

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)

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts that were read as part of the Mass on the different feast days throughout the year. The page for Easter Sunday is lavished with intricate decoration exploring the significance of Christ’s Resurrection, as well as portraits of the main people involved in the making of the manuscript, whimsical fight scenes and beautifully observed representations of the natural world.

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

Discover the hidden meanings behind the artwork and celebrate the joys of medieval Easter by listening online while viewing the high-resolution image. You can also find out more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost.

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