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

05 July 2022

Virtual private view of Gold on the British Library Player

Many thanks to all of our readers who have visited the Gold exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Library; we’ve had some great feedback from you.

A cutting from a Gradual, illuminated in gold

Cutting from a Gradual (Florence, 2nd half of the 14th century): Add MS 35254C

For those who aren’t in London and may not be able to make the trip to the Library to see the exhibition in person, you can now watch two videos about the exhibition: (1) a highlights video outlining the exhibition and featuring curators discussing seven manuscripts in detail as a virtual private view; and (2) a film of a live question and answer session with the curators, chaired by Professor Alixe Bovey, Dean and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Both videos can be viewed on the British Library Player.

A page from a Book of Hours, showing the scribe or artist at work, sitting before a lectern with a pen in their right hand

Jean Bourdichon, Book of Hours (Tours, 1510–25): Add MS 18855, f. 13v

The virtual private view includes much more detailed information about the featured manuscripts than available on the labels, or in the exhibition book, so do have a look for a focus on the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter, for a detailed description of the techniques of using gold leaf in a cutting from an Italian gradual and of shell gold in a Jean Bourdichon Book of Hours, of gold tooling on a French Art Deco book binding, and for the process of extracting gold as seen in an 18th-century Japanese scroll of gold mining. 

The Tree of Jesse in the Queen Mary Psalter

The Queen Mary Psalter (London, early 14th century): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

Gold in on display at the British Library in London until 2 October 2022. Tickets can be purchased on the day or in advance from the online ticket office.

 

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30 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.

 

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24 June 2022

MP3

Some of you may have seen the exciting news that Trinity College Dublin has digitised its manuscript of the Book of St Albans by Matthew Paris. Initiatives of this kind whet the appetites of scholarly researchers and members of the public alike. We may not all have the opportunity to handle medieval manuscripts at first hand, but we always welcome the chance to see them up close in virtual form. Matthew Paris (d. around 1259) would have been proud as punch to see his work shared with so many people.

To celebrate this achievement, we thought we'd share with you another three manuscripts that were written and illustrated by Matthew Paris himself, all of which are held by the British Library (we're going to call them the MP3). We start by letting his elephant take a bow, which is found in the work known as 'Liber Additamentorum' (The Book of Additions), Cotton MS Nero D I. (All of the manuscripts we mention are available in full and for free online; no manuscripts were hurt in the writing of this blogpost.) We have written about this pachyderm before in our blogpost The Elephant at the Tower. The elephant was a gift to King Henry III of England (reigned 1216–1272) from Louis IX of France. Matthew had seen the animal in person, writing:

'About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight.'

The unnamed creature was said to be 10 years old, 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor. Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum contains this full-page illustration of the elephant, another version of which is found in a manuscript at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This begs the question, 'one trunk or two?'

Drawing of the elephant at the Tower of London by Matthew Paris

The elephant kept at the Tower of London, described and illustrated by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

Number 2 in our list of the famous MP3 is a map of Britain, drawn by Matthew Paris himself. It belongs with his Abbereviatio chronicorum, but was removed and bound separately in 1929 (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1). This map is effectively a gazetteer of 13th-century England, Wales and Scotland, drawn by someone who spent most of their life in St Albans and had no access to satellite mapping. Most notably to the modern eye, northern Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, Canterbury is located due South of London (and can be traced in a straight line via Newark, Doncaster and Durham to Newcastle, along the route of the East Coast mainline), and Mount Snowdon is represented by a sandcastle.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris

Map of Britain by Matthew Paris: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

And last, but not least, we have the autograph manuscript that contains Matthew's itinerary to Jerusalem and other maps, his Historia Anglorum, and the third part of his greatest historical work, the Chronica maiora (Royal MS 14 C VII). It's only by looking at this manuscript in the round that you get some sense of Matthew's wide range of interests, of his detailed chronicling activity, and of his artistic achievement. It's difficult to pick out any particular page for special attention — the candidates include his portraits of the kings of England and another map of Britain — but we have decided to go with the self-portrait of Matthew himself, portrayed kneeling before the Virgin and Child. Matthew Paris was not the most modest of men, to judge by his many writings. In this illustration he captures himself in a more suppliant pose, lying prostrate on the floor, but with his name picked out in blue and red capitals for the readers' attention. It's to this monk that we owe so many marvellous medieval manuscripts.

Miniature of the Virgin holding the birthday Jesus  with Matthew Paris lying at their feet

Miniature of the Virgin and Child, with a self-portrait by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

 

Julian Harrison

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