Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

27 September 2021

A figured poem

The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.

A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.

Figured poem in the shape of a cross from De Laudibus sancte crucis
The sixteenth figural poem of book 1, bordered by a twining pattern, depicting a cross composed of overlapping quatrefoils in yellow and blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 21v

Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious
Figural poem with foliate border dedicating Hrabanus's work to Emperor Louis the Pious, shown with nimbus, shield, and cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 2v

Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).

Figured poem spelling out 'Crux salus' in the shape of a cross
The third figural poem of book 1, bordered by foliage and coloured roundels, depicting the epigram, 'Crux salus' (The salvific Cross) in blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 8v

The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.

Figured poem with a cross and a portrait of Rabanus Maurus
The twenty-eighth figural poem of book 1, bordered by an inhabited vine scroll with birds, animals, and human figures, depicting Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v
 
Detail of the portrait of Rabanus Maurus
Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v (detail)

Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious from BnF MS Lat. 11685
Figural poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 11685, f. 5v

You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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24 September 2021

The Green Knight: the movie and the manuscript

What's the first thing that you think of when you hear the words 'the Green Knight'? Is it the new Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, which has its UK release on 24 September? Or, if you are a medieval nerd, is it the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we look after at the British Library?

We haven't yet seen the film (have you booked your tickets yet?) but the 14th-century manuscript is available to view in full online, and it is also currently on display, for free, in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Its full-page illustrations have a charm all of their own, even if they were once dismissed as 'coarsely executed'. Take, for instance, the scene shown below, which prefaces the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v). At the top of the page, Sir Gawain (dressed in red and holding an axe) is addressing King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at their distinctly un-round table. Below, the Green Knight mounted on his green horse holds his severed head aloft, in front of a clearly bemused Gawain.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing in the foreground the Green Knight on horseback holding his severed head before Sir Gawain, who is wearing a red tunic. Above, Gawain holding his axe stands to the left of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, wearing crowns, and a third figure on the right.

There are three further illustrations accompanying the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all painted in the same palette and in which all the characters have identical features and hairstyles. These illustrations follow one another in sequence at the end of the poem (ff. 129r, 129v, 130r). First, we have Bertilak's lady entering Gawain's bedchamber in order to seduce him (f. 129r). She is wearing what seems to be a turban and a brightly spotted dressing gown. Gawain is swathed, quite fittingly, in a green blanket.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing Bertilak's lady standing before a sleeping Gawain

Then we have the scene of Sir Gawain (on horseback) and the Green Knight (wielding the axe) before the Green Chapel (f. 129v). It has to be said that this particular page is exceedingly green, with the odd hints of other colours to delineate Gawain and the Green Knight's blond hair.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing Gawain on horseback approaching the Green Chapel, with the Green Knight awaiting him

Finally, a kneeling Gawain is shown being greeted by Arthur and Guinevere beneath a dark blue canopy (f. 130r). The perspective of the three figures at the rear is disproportionate to that of Gawain before them and the paint, it has to be said, has been applied rather thickly. But the king and queen's expressions say it all: Gawain has accomplished his challenge and has saved the honour of King Arthur's court.

An illustration from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and a third figure standing before a kneeling Sir Gawain

There are some wonderful still images of The Green Knight movie available on the IMDb website. The costume design of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) and the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) clearly owes nothing to their medieval counterparts. But we love their distinctive headdresses — Dev Patel shown below looks a tad like a Sun King — and the sheer menace on the Green Knight's face. The image of the Green Knight riding into King Arthur's court (featuring, incidentally, a very round-looking table) makes our hairs stand on end. There may be little in common with the image in the unique medieval manuscript, but they both convey a similar mood. This is a moment of wonder, of real danger, and of enticing mystery. We hope the film lives up to expectations. Never has it been more appropriate to declare, "Off with his head!"

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing Dev Patel wearing a crown

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing the character of the Green Knight

A still from the Green Knight movie, showing the Green Knight on horseback riding into King Arthur's courtsing into

All film images courtesy of IMDb.com, and as used in other reviews of the movie

 

Julian Harrison

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23 September 2021

Dragons, heroes, myths and magic

Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.

A love story

One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.

Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven
Beatrice leading Dante up towards the spheres of heaven, with the earthly paradise beneath, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections

Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose
Dante and Beatrice before the Celestial Rose, with the Holy Trinity and the orders of angels among the petals, Divina Commedia (Italy, Tuscany, c. 1445): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 185r

Stories of famous women

In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.

Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine
Circe changing Ulysses and his companions into swine, with ships in the foreground, in Christine de Pizan, 'L'Épître Othéa', The Book of the Queen (France, Paris, c. 1410-c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 140r

Travellers’ tales

Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.

Scenes of legendary people
Cyclops eating raw fish, blemmyae watched by Mandeville who is writing in a book, and men with eyes and mouth in their backs, Mandeville’s Travels (England, 1400-1450): Harley MS 3954, f. 42r

A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.

Illustrations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain, King Arthur and Guinevere at table; below, Gawain holds an axe and the Green Knight, on a green horse, holds his own severed head, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, Midlands, 1375-1424): Cotton MS Nero A x/2, f. 94v

A lovable rogue

Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.

Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck
Reynard seizing Chanticleer the cockerel by the neck, Roman de Renart (France or England, 14th century): Add MS 15229, f. 13r

Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.

Frontispiece to The History of Reynard the Foxe, with the title and floral borders
Frontispiece to William Caxton (transl.), The History of Reynard the Foxe, with woodcut borders and ornamental initial letters designed by William Morris (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892): British Library C.43.f.3.

Discover more medieval stories

Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.

Dragons heroes myths and magic cover

But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here. 

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