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26 July 2021

A letter of recommendation split between two continents

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How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.

Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum. 

Page from a manuscript dating from 1712, containing the beginning of a letter-writing treatise attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum
Beginning of the treatise entitled ‘Epistolikoi Typoi’ (‘Types of Letters’) attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, preserved in a manuscript of 1712: Add MS 39619, f. 116r

A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.

St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).

The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.

Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).

Left-hand portion of a papyrus sheet
Left half of a letter of recommendation on papyrus: Papyrus 2553

Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite. 

Two perfectly joining papyrus fragments preserve a full letter of 6 CE
Full papyrus sheet, consisting of the British Library fragment on the left and the Columbia fragment on the right

Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.

In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.

In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’

Conclusion of a letter on papyrus, containing the postscript in a different hand
Postscript in a second hand added at the end of the letter, after the date

Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates. 

Federica Micucci

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21 July 2021

Miniature books

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Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
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19 July 2021

Dürer in the Low Countries

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Five hundred years after the artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) travelled through the Low Countries, the exhibition “Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” has opened at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. Drawing on the detailed travel journal that Dürer kept, the exhibition reconstructs the artist’s journey, with a particular focus on the time he spent in Aachen in 1520 when he attended the coronation of Emperor Charles V.

The British Library is delighted to have loaned the only surviving page-fragments from Dürer’s original journal to the exhibition, where they are displayed with an early copy of the complete text, loaned by the Staatsbibliothek in Bamberg. The first British Library fragment shows two sketches of a piece of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a type of woman’s cloak worn in the Low Countries.

Page from Dürer's original diary showing two patterns for a type of woman’s cloak worn in the Low Countries, 1520

Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520: Add MS 5229, f. 50r

The second fragment contains two sketches of the Coat-of-Arms of Lorenz Staiber (1485/6–1539), writer, orator and patrician of Nuremberg, and mentioned by Dürer in his journal. The sketches are thought to have been made in preparation for a woodcut.  

Page from Dürer's original diary showing two sketches of the Coat-of-Arms of Lorenz Staiber, 1520-21

Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520-21: Add MS 5229, f. 59r

Dürer used his journal to document his itinerary, diet, expenses and earnings, and to record noteworthy sights, encounters with fellow artists, and meetings with influential individuals and patrons. The journal also mentions around 120 portrait drawings and a small number of paintings that Dürer produced and either sold or gifted during his travels. Now widely dispersed, the exhibition brings together many of these masterpieces, as well as works by some of the artists whom Dürer met and inspired on the way.

In addition to his extraordinary artistic abilities, Albrecht Dürer possessed a lifelong fascination with artistic theory. From about 1500 he became increasingly absorbed by his studies on the techniques and underlying principles of art and in particular on the correct depiction of the human body. The British Library holds four volumes of Dürer’s research notes, which relate overwhelmingly to his studies on human proportion. They contain numerous mathematically constructed drawings of men, women and children, accompanied by precise measurements and detailed notes in German on the correct construction of the human figure.

The sheet below is dated 1513 and bears Dürer’s characteristic ‘AD’ monogram. It shows a proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements. Dürer has used a framework of vertical and horizontal lines to calculate the dimensions of different sections of the body as fractions of the total height of the figure.

Proportion drawing of a male nude with a framework of horizontal and vertical lines and detailed measurements

Proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements: Add MS 5230, f. 93r

Proportion drawing of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by measurements

Proportion drawing of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by measurements and step-by-step instructions in German on the correct construction of the figure: Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Proportion drawing of a male nude seen from the front and in profile
Proportion drawing of a male nude seen from the front and in profile: Add MS 5228, f. 124r 

Proportion drawing of an infant, before 1513

Proportion drawing of an infant: Add MS 5228, f. 186v

Drawing showing the construction of a male head in profile

Drawing showing the construction of a male head in profile: Add MS 5230, f. 10r

As Dürer’s sketches of fencers in combat illustrate, he was also interested in the theory of movement and how to capture the appearance and form of the body in motion. The inscriptions accompanying the rapidly executed drawings explain that they show the positions for the blades and for counter-blows or parries.

Drawing of fencing positions, 1512

Drawing of fencing positions, 1512: Add MS 5229, f. 67v

Albrecht Dürer’s extensive research, conducted over 30 years, culminated in the illustrated treatise Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion or ‘Four Books on Human Proportion’ which was posthumously published by his wife Agnes in Nuremberg in 1528.

“Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” runs in Aachen from 18 July until 24 October 2021.

 

Andrea Clarke

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15 July 2021

The lost miracles of Wulfsige of Evesham

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Little is known about Wulfsige (d. 1104 or 1105), also known as ‘Wulsinus’, an important figure of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary the Virgin and St Egwin at Evesham (Worcestershire). Wulfsige reputedly lived at the abbey for 75 years, and was venerated as a saint after his death. According to the Peterborough Chronicle, an Evesham monk named Thomas of Northwich (d. 1206 or 1207) wrote three books about the miracles that had taken place at Wulfsige’s tomb. Until now, no trace of Northwich’s work has been found. However, while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we have discovered what seems to be a fragment of this lost miracle collection. 

An entry from the Peterborough Chronicle, written in brown ink, about the three books that Thomas of Northwich wrote about Wulfsige

Wulfsige’s miracles in the Peterborough Chronicle: ‘[Wulfsige] at whose tomb many miracles are made by the Lord, which Master Thomas of Northwich wrote down in three books’ (‘ad cujus tumbam multa miracula a domino facta sunt que iij libris scripsit magister Thomas Norwicensis’): Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 19r (England, 2nd half of the 14th century)

Wulfsige lived at Evesham Abbey as an ‘anchorite’, a recluse who separated himself from the monks in an enclosure. This was either a cell or, according to one source, an underground cavity. Despite his secluded lifestyle, Wulfsige engaged actively with worldly affairs. He allegedly wrote to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) urging him to re-found Westminster Abbey, provided spiritual advice to Leofric (d. 1057), Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu (d. ?1067), better known as ‘Lady Godiva’, and persuaded St Wulfstan (c. 1000–1095) to accept the bishopric of Worcester in 1062. Wulfsige’s importance to Evesham is evident from the fact that he was buried in the middle of the choir of the abbey church. The monks celebrated his feast on 24 February.

A text written in early modern script and red ink, recording the feast of Wulfsige

The feast of Wulfsige in an early 18th-century transcript of a 14th-century Evesham Calendar in Cotton MS Vitellius E XVII, that is now illegible due to fire damage: ‘Wulfsige, a monk and anchorite of this place’ (‘Wlsinus Monachus et Anachorita istius loci’): Lansdowne MS 427, f. 4r

We can now get a glimpse of Wulfsige’s miracles through the discovery of two fragmentary parchment leaves in a 13th-century English manuscript — Harley MS 4242. The leaves record the miracles of a certain ‘Wlsinus’. The old printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts published in 1808 calls him ‘Walsinus’, but closer examination makes clear that he is none other than Wulfsige. All the miracles are set in or close to the Vale of Evesham. Moreover, in one of them a woman from the village of Wick, who was suffering from a severe headache, identified him as an anchorite: ‘St Wulsinus, anchorite, help me’ (‘Sancte Wlsine anachorita adiuva me’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman of Wick calls Wulfsige an anchorite (‘anachorita’) in line 10

Wulfsige heals a woman of Wick who invokes him as an anchorite: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige’s miracles typically involved supernatural healing. One tells of a certain Helewisa of Badsey whose entire body was seized by pain. When she was brought to Wulfsige’s tomb to ask for his help, her husband forced her to return to their village. She complied reluctantly, regretting that she had not dared to stay at the tomb for longer. But Wulfsige clearly heard her prayers as she was completely relieved of her pain.

A text beginning with a large initial in red and written in black ink in which Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey

Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Another miracle concerned a boy of Evesham who suffered from bloody diarrhoea and constantly had to go to the latrine, day and night. When his mother took holy water and dedicated it to Wulfsige, the boy was cured within the same hour.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman dedicates holy water (‘aqua benedicta’) to Wulfsige in lines 8 and 9

Wulfsige heals a boy of Evesham from bloody diarrhoea: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige also aided those who prayed for their animals. One miracle tells of a man of Evesham who had been searching for his sow and her piglets for a long time. After he vowed to venerate Wulfsige if his pigs would reappear, he found them the next day.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which Wulfsige returns a sow with piglets (‘Sus cum porcellis’ in line 1) to a man of Evesham

Wulfsige reunites a man of Evesham with his sow and her piglets: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

In other miracles, the diseased recovered when their bodies were measured in dedication of Wulfsige. One woman was unable to breast-feed her baby, but when she used a cord to measure her breasts in veneration of Wulfsige, they started to lactate. Similarly, a calf of Hugh of Ullington did not eat or walk for two days, but when Hugh used a cord to measure it in Wulfsige's honour it suddenly revived.

A text beginning with a large red initial and written in black ink in which a calf is healed by measuring it in dedication to Wulfsige in lines 6 and 7: ‘ad honorem sancti Wlsini mensuratus’ (‘having been measured to the honour of Saint Wulsinus’)

A calf in Ullington is healed after it is measured in dedication to Wulfsige: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

After measuring, these cords were typically used as wicks for votive candles that were offered at a saint’s shrine, in this case Wulfsige’s tomb. An example is featured on the 800-year old ‘Miracles Windows’ of Canterbury Cathedral that are currently on display at the British Museum’s exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint. They show a woman who had recovered from abdominal problems at the tomb of Thomas Becket (d. 1170), archbishop of Canterbury. She offers Becket a coiled wick, known as a ‘trindle’, which she had probably used to measure herself in his honour. 

A woman in a white robe and a green mantle kneels before the tomb of St Thomas of Canterbury to place a coiled wick on top of the tomb

A woman offers a coiled wick to St Thomas of Canterbury on the Miracle Windows, 1200s: © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral & Trustees of the British Museum

Wulfsige was also associated with Becket by an owner of Harley MS 4242. The leaves with his miracles are later additions to the manuscript. Originally, it only contained a 13th-century copy of the Quadrilogus, an account of Becket’s life and martyrdom that was compiled by an Evesham monk in 1198–1199. Whoever added the fragments of Wulfsige’s miracles to the manuscript — an Evesham monk perhaps — may have linked the anchorite with the archbishop because of the many healing miracles that were performed at their tombs.

A marginal drawing showing Thomas Becket bowing his head and lifting his hands in prayer with a cross behind him and a bishop’s mitre to his right. The drawing shows how the bishop was given a fatal blow to the head with a sword while he was in prayer

A marginal drawing of the murder of Thomas Becket: Harley MS 4242, f. 6v

While hundreds of Becket’s miracles survive, the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles only contain seventeen complete stories. However, the fragments clearly originate from a larger collection, and their compiler suggests that there were many more miracles that they did not write about: ‘These are a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulfsige’ (‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which the compiler of Wulfsige’s miracles comments on their multitude. The Latin quotation in the main text above starts on line 1: ‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’ (‘These are but a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulsinus’).

The compiler refers to the multitude of Wulfsige’s miracles: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

Do the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles come from the original books compiled by Thomas of Northwich? Possibly. First, the script is datable to the early 13th century, which corresponds with the time when Northwich was active. Moreover, Wulfsige was venerated primarily at Evesham and his miracles may not been widely distributed.

Our fragments add to the small number of surviving books attributable to Evesham Abbey. The MLGB3 website lists twenty-seven surviving manuscripts and fragments from that abbey, which is only a fraction of the library at the monastery until it was dissolved in 1540. Whether or not the fragments originated from Northwich’s manuscript, they shed new light on the miracles that enhanced Evesham’s reputation as a site of sanctity and wonder during the Middle Ages.

Keep an eye on this Blog for more discoveries from the Harley collection.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 July 2021

Murder most foul in the Cotswolds

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Opening the door of a pretty Norman church down a country lane in the Cotswold village of South Newington, I was shocked to be confronted by two rather violent murder scenes painted on the wall. The first is of a man being viciously cut down while he raises his hands in prayer; his head is split in two by a sword, and blood spurts over his forehead. Though the paintings are rather fragmentary and difficult to make out at first, the figure in the red cloak, his hands raised in prayer is unmistakeably Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an event that caused a great scandal throughout Christendom.

Beside it is another violent scene that has been identified as the execution in 1322 of Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who led a rebellion against King Edward II (r. 1307-1327). He is also shown kneeling while his executioner towers over him, using all his force to chop off his head. Drops of blood spurt from his neck – by one account it took several blows to decapitate him. Both paintings have been dated to the 1330s.

Two fragmentary wall paintings. Left, a kneeling man is hit on the head with a sword. Right, a kneeling man is attacked by a standing soldier from behind.
Wall Paintings in St Peter ad Vincula church, South Newington, Oxfordshire, of the murder of St Thomas Becket and the execution of Thomas Plantagenet. Photos by Chantry Westwell

While attempts to canonise Thomas Plantagenet were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, Thomas Becket was made a saint not long after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular destination of pilgrimage. Two hundred years later, Henry VIII did his utmost to stamp out the cult of Becket and ordered all representations of him to be destroyed. Becket’s face in this painting only survived because it had an image of St George, another popular English saint, painted over it at a later date. It was uncovered and restored in the 20th century.

Had the full scene in the wall painting survived, it may have looked a little like one of the two scenes below. Both are dated to the early part of the 14th century and are in the margins of personal prayerbooks probably made in south-eastern England. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a whole series of more than 20 images from the life and afterlife of St Thomas Becket. 

Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling saint with swords, while a man holds a cross over him. The word Thomas is written beneath
The murder of Thomas Becket in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 237r (detail)
Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling bishop with swords, while a man holds a cross out from behind an altar
The murder of St Thomas Becket in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 85v (detail)

The Taymouth Hours has numerous scenes of the torture and murder of saints across the lower margins. On the other side of the page from Becket is an even more gruesome scene: the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned on a brazier. 

A tonsured, nude figure is burned on a brazier over red flames, while a figure uses bellows to stoke the fire
The martyrdom of St Lawrence in The Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86r (detail)

A finely painted miniature from the 15th century of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral shows details of Thomas’s ethereal gaze, the grim facial expressions of the attackers and the elaborately decorated backdrop of the sanctuary. This is from a rather small prayer book (about the size of a Kindle), but the digital images allow us to zoom in and see the exquisite details clearly.

A churchman in robes with a halo kneels at an altar, looking upwards, while two knights attack him with weapons and two watch; behind are statues and the apse of the cathedral; the border has flowers and gold foliate decoration
The murder of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 55v

As one of the most popular English saints, Becket was frequently depicted alongside other well-known saints. Here in a Psalter from northern England he is shown with two much-venerated female martyrs of the early Church: St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch.

Four knights on the left of the upper image, one hitting the kneeling saint with a long sword, while a monk holds a cross over him; in the lower image, Saints Margaret and Catherine
The Murder of Thomas Becket (above); St Margaret emerges from the belly of a dragon, and beats a demon with a whip (lower left); St Catherine prays amidst the dead bodies of the men who attempted to martyr her by breaking her over a wheel, while an angel breaks the wheels with clubs (lower right); in the Huth Psalter: Add MS 38116, f. 13r

My encounter with the image of Thomas Becket in the Cotswolds was timely, as the 850th anniversary of his murder is being marked this summer by an exhibition at the British Museum (postponed from 2020), Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. Included among the objects on display are other British Library manuscripts with scenes from his life and death, featured in our recent blogpost, Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint. There's also more about saints in medieval manuscripts, including Becket, on the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project website.

You can also discover amazing images from British Library manuscripts for yourself using the 'Advanced Search' page in the our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you search for ‘Becket’ in the 'Image description' field, twenty-five results are displayed, some from manuscripts in this blogpost. For example, the Queen Mary Psalter (seen above) includes this scene of Thomas Becket being brought into the Lord’s presence by two angels. It is beneath a full-page image of the Trinity in the section containing the Canticles. 

Drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord
A bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r (detail)
The Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket
A miniature of the Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r

Chantry Westwell

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27 June 2021

Prefacing the Psalms

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From a relatively early date in the Latin West, luxury Psalters featured cycles of introductory or prefatory full-page images. Very often these focused on the life of Christ, although other subjects such as the Creation and King David were also featured. It is likely that these cycles of images grew out of the interpretation of the Psalms as a prefiguration of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This concept reflects Jesus’s comment that ‘all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me’ (Luke 24:44).

Prefatory images before the Psalms, showing Two miracle scenes
Two miracle scenes from the Life of Christ, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v

One large and impressive Psalter features twenty full-page prefatory images. It was probably made in Oxford because the calendar following the miniatures includes a reference to the translation (or reburial) of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, in 1180. The absence of another important event, the translation of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury into a new shrine in 1220, suggests that this manuscript may have been made before that occurred.

In this Psalter each illuminated page contains two scenes that illustrate events from the life of Christ. Sometimes the images include scrolls with biblical quotations that supplement and interpret the paintings, perhaps indicating that the original owner of the book may have been able to read Latin or would have viewed it with someone who could. For example, in the upper register of this image Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, but he is starting to sink into the sea. The banner proclaims ‘Modice fidei quare dubitasti’ (O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?) (Matthew 14:31).

Detail of miniature showing Christ walking on water as St Peter attempts to follow
Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

In the lower register of the same image is the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James, all kneeling below. Christ is enclosed in an almond shape mandorla, which was often used to frame and signify Christ in Majesty. Moses, to his left, is identifiable by the horns on his head. This attribute is based on the account of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which says that ‘he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:29), where the Hebrew word ḳaran was mis-translated as horned (the word can also mean ‘to radiate’).

Detail of miniature showing the Transfiguration of Christ
The Transfiguration, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200: Arundel MS 157, f. 7v (detail)

Another interesting aspect of the cycle in this manuscript is the use of silver, which unlike many medieval examples has not tarnished to black. This is particularly apparent in the sword and armour of the soldier who raises his sword to murder a young boy in the illustration of the Massacre of the Innocents. The mail of the soldier’s helmet, body armour and greaves (leg armour) is all carefully delineated and the silver retains its sheen.

Miniature of the Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below
The Flight into Egypt above, and the Slaughter of the Innocents below, from a Psalter, Oxford, c. 1200, Arundel MS 157, f. 5r

The vivid images that preface the Psalms thereby enhance the devotional experience of reading and meditating on the Psalms, as well as providing a visual commentary on the biblical text. This beautiful Psalter was digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project and you can find out more about English manuscript illumination on the project website.


Kathleen Doyle

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24 June 2021

A medieval midsummer

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To mark Midsummer's Day (24 June), we're taking a look at one of the sources for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as illustrated in some of the British Library's manuscripts — the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe. 

You may be familiar with Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Act V of The Dream, in which a band of 'mechanicals', played by Bottom and others, re-enact the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. A Midsummer Night's Dream was written most probably in the 1590s — the First Quarto was published in 1600 — but the 'mini-play' featuring the parts of Pyramus, Thisbe, the Prologue, the Lion, Moonshine and the Wall has much older origins. 

The story of the ill-fated lovers first emerges in its 'modern' form in Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed in AD 8. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in adjoining houses in Babylon, but were able to communicate only through a crack in the wall, due to their parents' rivalry. They arranged to meet near a mulberry tree, by the tomb of Ninus (the mythical founder of Nineveh), but Thisbe was disturbed by a lioness and fled, leaving behind her blood-stained cloak. When Pyramus discovered it, he assumed that Thisbe had been killed by a wild beast and fell on his sword, staining the white fruits of the mulberry tree with his own blood; Thisbe then returned and killed herself in turn with her lover's sword. The gods heard her dying lament and changed the mulberry fruits to their new dark shade in honour of the lovers.

In this 15th-century French translation of Ovid's text, known as Ovide moralisé, Thisbe is shown standing over Pyramus's body, in front of a mulberry tree and beside a fountain, stabbing herself with his sword.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wears a red and white dress and stabs herself in the neck. Pyramus wears a blue tunic and lies before her. A fountain stands behind them.

Thisbe kills herself in despair at finding Pyramus dead, in a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Southern Netherlands, 15th century): Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

Shakespeare's deliberately muddled version of the legend is perhaps the best-known adaptation, but a number of medieval authors also recounted the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. It turns up in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, completed in the 1350s, and in his De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), dating from 1361–62. In this 15th-century French translation of De claris mulieribus (Des cleres et nobles femmes), a red-gowned Thisbe is shown piercing her neck with the sword (this tale is not for the squeamish), with the walls of Babylon in the background.

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing red pierces her throat with a sword. Pyramus wearing brown lies dead on the ground to her right.

The death of the lovers, in a translation of Boccaccio's On Famous Women (Paris, c. 1410): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 22r

Geoffrey Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women (1380s) and John Gower in his Confessio Amantis, composed at the request of King Richard II (1377–1399), rendered the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe for the first time in English. But it is Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) which supplies perhaps our favourite medieval image of this story. Illustrating her L'Épître Othéa is this miniature depicting the suicide of the lovers. To the rear, a lion is tearing with its teeth at Thisbe's cloak. In the foreground Pyramus lies prostrate beside a fountain, clutching his heart, while an ashen-faced Thisbe has plunged the sword through her chest, penetrating her back, and is about to fall to the earth. Behind them grows the mulberry tree and to their rear is what may be taken for the wall through which they communicated. Christine herself was the scribe of part of this manuscript, which was made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), the wife of King Charles VI of France (1380–1422).

An illustration of the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in an illuminated manuscript. Thisbe wearing an orange-red cloak kneels in the left foreground and has pierced her chest with a sword. Pyramus in blue lies to her right, clutching his heart. There is a fountain behind them and to the rear a lion rips at Thisbe's cloak with its teeth.

The death of the lovers in the Book of the Queen (Paris, c. 1410-14): Harley MS 4431, f. 112v

William Shakespeare's rendering of this episode in A Midsummer Night's Dream is more comical than tragic. The guests at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta are highly amused by the performance. Theseus turns down the chance to hear the prologue, 'for your play needs no excuse', and the actors finish with a dance. Happy ever after ... but far removed from the original macabre fate of Pyramus and Thisbe.

 

Julian Harrison

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20 June 2021

Caption competition June 2021

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It's time to let the creative juices to flow. We'd love you to come up with a witty caption for this image from one of our medieval manuscripts. You can either make your suggestion using the comments box below or play along via Twitter (we are @BLMedieval). No prizes, just the kudos of showing off your wit in front of thousands of our readers!

A medieval manuscript illumination, showing a lady seated and holding a sword, with her son before her and armed men standing behind her

A miniature of Semiramis seated, with a sword, and her son, Ninus, before her, with armed men behind her: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 8v