Medieval manuscripts blog

712 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.

Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

27 August 2022

Help us decipher this inscription

Do you fancy yourself as some sort of medieval detective? Then this might be just the right thing for you.

Hot off the press is this ultraviolet image of one of the manuscripts in our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the cartulary of Coldingham Priory. You can read more about the project in this blogpost and you can view the cartulary in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site (Harley MS 6670). The cartulary was made in 1434 for the Cistercian nuns of Coldingham in Scotland, and it contains copies of a number of documents, including a charter of Alexander II, King of Scots (r. 1214–1249), and several of the Earls of Dunbar. A note at the end of the volume (f. 55v) reveals that the nuns asked John Laurence, a public notary, to make a transcript of their charters, because of their age and out of fear of English invasion, which meant they were more susceptible to burning or other accidents.

A page of the Coldingham cartulary with an inscription at the top, revealed under ultraviolet light

While we were cataloguing the manuscript, we noticed this late medieval note in the upper part of the page at the end, that someone has tried to erase, very effectively as it happens. But what does it say? We'd love your thoughts. Is it an ownership inscription of some kind, or does it give an insight into how the cartulary was made or used?

If you are able to read some or all of the words, please pop a comment into the box below or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval. We'd be extremely grateful for your help. Here is a detail of the inscription, and you can see what it looks like with the naked eye here (Harley MS 6670, f. 57v).

Highlight of the inscription

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

25 August 2022

Hildegard-go!

Earlier this year we announced our major Medieval and Renaissance Women project (you can read more about it in this blogpost.) Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, the British Library is digitising many of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, and made between 1100 and 1600.

A page from a medieval manuscript of Hildegard von Bingen's collected works, featuring a decorated border and initials in gold.

The prologue of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber divinorum operum (Add MS 15418, f. 7r)

We have some great news to report: the first batch of ten manuscript volumes is now available to view online. They include copies of the works of Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan; a manuscript illuminated by the German nun Sibilla von Bondorf; two witnesses of Le Sacre de Claude de France; a Dutch prayer-book designed to support young women's literacy; and two cartularies (one secular, the other religious). 

A page from a manuscript of The Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, featuring an illustration of the Virgin Mary and Child, and a bishop, painted by Sibilla von Bondorff.

The Virgin Mary and Child with a bishop, perhaps St Giles, painted by Sibilla von Bondorf, a German nun and artist (Add MS 15686, f. 1r)

A page from a medieval manuscript of a work of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Christine writing at her desk and the armoured goddess Minerva outside.

Christine de Pizan writing in her study and the goddess Minerva, at the beginning of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (Harley MS 4605, f. 3r)

A full list of the published manuscripts is provided at the end of this post. We'll reveal more on the Blog in the coming months. Hopefully this initial selection whets your appetite for the treats in store!

An illustration from a Middle Dutch prayer-book, showing a group of girls learning in a classroom, with a teacher holding a wooden paddle.

An illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom, from a Middle Dutch prayer-book (Harley MS 3828, f. 27v)

A brief word about how we've chosen the manuscripts. In February, we asked readers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to recommend items that were most relevant to their research and to the themes of our project, such as female health, education and spirituality. The feedback was astonishing — we received over 60 suggestions of manuscripts from nearly 30 researchers and other members of the public — and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your enthusiastic responses. We then compared these nominations with other collection items held at the Library, taking into consideration factors such as the contents and date of each manuscript, its direct relevance to the lives of medieval and Renaissance women, and whether the manuscript's condition makes it suitable for digitisation. We've also strived to be as representative as possible by including manuscripts from different regions of Europe (and in different languages), as well as from the whole period 1100–1600.

Add MS 15418

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum

England, 15th century

Add MS 15686

Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibilla von Bondorf

Swabia, c. 1480

Add MS 29986

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

France, 1407–1410

Cotton MS Titus A XVII

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Harley MS 3828

Middle Dutch prayer-book

Southern Netherlands, c. 1440-c. 1500

Harley MS 4605

Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie

London, 1434

Harley MS 6670

Cartulary of Coldstream Priory

Coldstream, 1434

Royal MS 19 B XVI

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

Northern France, 1428

Stowe MS 582

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Stowe MS 776

Cartulary of the estates of John de Vaux and his daughter and co-heiress Petronilla de Narford

England, 14th century

 

A page from a manuscript of Le Sacre de Claude de France, showing an illustration of the French Queen's coronation.

The Coronation of Claude de France at St Denis in 1517 (Stowe MS 582, f. 18v)

A page from the Cartulary of Coldstream Priory, showing the text of a charter, with a marginal drawing of a lion in red and black ink.

The cartulary of Coldstream Priory (Harley MS 6670, f. 22r)

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 August 2022

Massacre on the streets of Paris

On 2 September 1572, Francis Walsingham, then Ambassador to the French Court, wrote a letter from Paris to Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State, the scrawled, messy draft of which survives as Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, ff. 163v–164r. The letter's crossings-out and insertions bear witness to trauma and anger.

The first page of Walsingham's letter

The beginning of the draft of Walsingham's letter: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 163v

A week before, in the early hours of 24 August (St Bartholomew’s Day), a massacre had begun in the city which left some 3,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) dead. Many more would die as the violence spread to the provinces. This letter reports Walsingham’s audiences on 1 September with King Charles IX and the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. The massacre had wound down only two days before, and Walsingham had been escorted to the Louvre through the still uneasy streets by the king’s brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou, a mark of the esteem in which the French court held its alliance with England. Anjou had also played an important part in the decision-making which sparked the massacre.

The massacre had two components. Charles IX and his Council had ordered the pre-emptive killing of 70 or so leading Huguenot nobles as threats to (and it was later claimed, conspirators against) King and State. The presence of the King’s death squads in Paris triggered the wider massacre, as the Catholic militants of the city turned against their Huguenot neighbours. Royal orders failed to stop the mass killing.

Painting of the St Bartholomew Day's Massacre

A painting of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois (1529–1584): public domain image

Walsingham's letter addresses both aspects of the massacre. It reports in fairly neutral tones what the King, and later the Queen Mother, declared, that Huguenot conspiracy had forced them to act. Charles said that he had been ‘constrayned to his great greafe to doe that w[hi]ch he dyd for his savetes sake’. Charles promised to provide the evidence of the Huguenot conspiracy to Queen Elizabeth, with Walsingham replying that she ‘woolde be glad to vnderstande the grow[n]d of the matter’. If the alleged conspirators were guilty,  ‘none shoolde be more gladde of the pvnishement’ than the Queen.

Portrait of Charles IX

Portrait of King Charles IX of France, after François Clouet: public domain image

Yet the draft shows one passage of real anger. Walsingham raised the issue (‘I made him understande’) that three English subjects had been murdered and others plundered during the general massacre. When the King promised to punish the guilty if they could be found, Walsingham replied that this would be hard to do, ‘the dysorder beinge so generall, the swoorde being commytted to the common people’. This in itself was an astonishingly blunt thing to say to a King — that he had let his God-given sword of justice and authority fall into the hands of the mob. It is also a surprisingly blunt thing to put down on paper. In the days immediately after the massacre, Walsingham had cause to be wary of letters falling onto the wrong hands. His next two reports were delivered verbally by the messenger. But in this letter Walsingham the diplomat clearly could not contain himself: the whole exchange is squeezed into the margin, added after the rest had been written.

The second page of Walsingham's letter

The second page of the draft letter, with Walsingham's incendiary comments in the left-hand margin: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 164r

The letter was informed by what Walsingham knew about the events of the previous days. On 26 August, he had sent a note to the Queen Mother, stating that he had heard reports of unrest in Paris, but professing that he was very reluctant to believe them and requesting the truth. The English embassy lay in a suburb where many Huguenots lived, but for much of the massacre it had been protected by a ring of royal troops.

Portrait of Francis Walsingham

Portrait of Francis Walsingham attributed to John De Critz the Elder (c. 1589): courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery NPG 1807

Yet Walsingham had more direct knowledge of the massacre than he admitted in that note. The embassy was itself attacked and the crowd pacified by a Catholic nobleman who summoned the royal troops. A number of English found refuge in the embassy, carrying news of the violence outside, including the young Lord Wharton, whose tutor had been murdered. Some Huguenots also escaped to the embassy, such as the leading nobleman, François de Beauvais, sieur de Briquemault, whose son had been killed in front of him. Briquemault sneaked past the royal guards into the embassy disguised as a butcher and was hidden in the embassy stables. At the very same time that the King was assuring Walsingham that he had been forced to act for his own safety, the latter was shielding one of the very leaders the King wanted dead.

Briquemault was discovered a few days later. Despite Walsingham’s pleas for his life, he was duly executed for the conspiracy which he denied to the end on the gallows.

 

Tim Wales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 August 2022

The man with the golden bulla

Our current Gold exhibition includes a number of the Library’s most famous treasures, but it also contains some little-known gems. One of the objects that was most fun to research is also one of the least familiar: the golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, attached to a land grant from May 1269. When I first came across this item while scoping for the exhibition, I had never seen a golden bulla before, nor had I heard of the Latin Emperors of Constantinople. But a bit of digging turned up the fascinating story of a failed emperor and his golden self-promotion.

A medieval charter with a gold seal attached to the bottom by red cords
Charter and golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365

What is a golden bulla?

In medieval Europe people authenticated documents by attaching a seal impressed with their unique design. Usually these seals were made from wax, but occasionally they were made from metals such as lead or gold. These metal seals were known as bullae (from the Latin for ‘bubble’) and were generally reserved for the most prestigious papal and imperial documents.

The use of golden bullae to seal documents is associated most closely with the Byzantine Emperors. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire which continued as a major power until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), fell to the Ottoman Empire. The golden seal, or chrysobull in Greek, was an effective emblem of Byzantine government, used by the emperor to authorise formal documents such as diplomatic correspondence, decrees of law and grants of privileges. The earliest surviving examples are from the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 866-86).

A Byzantine gold seal, showing two figures holding a military standard, with inscriptions round the edges
Gold seal of the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, depicted with his eldest son Constantine (Constantinople, 866-86) (Source: The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Some western rulers imitated the Byzantine practice of sealing important documents in gold, especially the Holy Roman Emperors. The British Library holds just one other medieval golden bulla, that of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493).

A gold seal showing a enthroned emperor, with inscriptions around the edges
Gold seal of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (Germany, 1440-1493): Seal XLIII.161

The high material value of golden bullae meant that they were frequently melted down and reused. For example, in the 11th century the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave a letter from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX to the church at Goslar, where the gold bulla was melted down to make a chalice (as recorded in the Chronicon Sanctorum Simonis et Judae Goslariense). With their restricted use and low survival rate, medieval gold bullae are extremely rare today.

Who was Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople?

The golden bulla that features in the Gold exhibition is particularly fascinating because it was not issued by a Byzantine emperor, but by a man who was pretending to be one. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, a crusader army from western Europe captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The crusaders founded a new Latin Empire of Constantinople with one of their leaders, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. His Flemish family ruled Constantinople for the next 57 years until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. The final Latin Emperor of Constantinople was Baldwin II, nephew of the first emperor and issuer of our golden bulla.

Baldwin II was born in Constantinople in 1217 and became Latin Emperor in 1228 at the age of eleven. He spent his reign struggling to hold onto power and desperately attempting to raise funds from western rulers. Perhaps his most notable legacy is that he sold one of the most holy Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns, formerly kept in Constantinople, to King Louis IX of France, who built the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to receive it. The relic was preserved at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris until the fire of 2019, when it was rescued from the blaze and moved to the Louvre.

Medieval miniature showing King Louis receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from a group of churchmen
Louis IX receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from Constantinople, Les Grandes chroniques de France (Paris, 1332-1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 395r

 

The Crown of Thorns
The Crown of Thorns, encased in a circular crystal reliquary of 1896, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris (Source: Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baldwin’s reign came to an end on the night of 24 July 1261 when Greek Byzantine soldiers launched a surprise attack and recaptured Constantinople. Luckily, Baldwin and many other inhabitants were rescued by the Venetian fleet. Although he spent the rest of his life in exile in western Europe, Baldwin never gave up his claim to the throne of Constantinople nor stopped using the title of emperor.

Decoding Baldwin’s golden bulla

The golden bulla at the British Library dates from after Baldwin was deposed and fled west. The charter to which it is attached was issued in May 1269 at Biervliet, a small town in the Netherlands. In it, Baldwin confirmed the grant of lands at Biervliet by his uncle, Philip I, Marquis of Namur, to the church of St Bavo in Ghent. The seal is made from two thin gold plates, each stamped with a different design, then joined together, rather like the foil on a chocolate coin. It is affixed to the document with red silk cords which pass through the interior of the bulla between the two plates.

Although the charter deals with the administration of Baldwin’s ancestral lands in Flanders, its gold seal speaks of his pretensions in Constantinople. The rare use of the golden bulla emulates Byzantine imperial practice, and the images and inscriptions reinforce Baldwin’s claim to be emperor.

The front of the seal shows Baldwin seated on a throne in full Byzantine regalia. He wears a Byzantine-style crown with pendilia (hanging ornaments) and holds the imperial sceptre and globe. He also wears a loros, an embroidered cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over the left arm. The Latin inscription reads:

‘BALDUINUS DEI : GRATIA : IMPERATOR ROMANIAE SEMPER: AVGUSTUS’

(Baldwin Augustus, by the grace of God, Emperor of Romania forever).

Romania (‘the land of the Romans’) was one of the contemporary names given to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which was claimed to be the second Rome and the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.

The front of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin seated on a throne, holding the orb and sceptre and weating a crown and loros, with a Latin inscription around the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse

The reverse of the bulla shows Baldwin on horseback bearing the Byzantine crown and sceptre, perhaps as a reference to the famous equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) that stood in the main square of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Remarkably for a seal issued in the Netherlands, the inscription on this side is in Greek. It reads:

‘BAΛΔOINOC ΔECΠOTHC . ΠOPΦIPOΓENNHTOC ΦΛANΔPAC’

(Baldoinos despotes Porphyrogennetos Phlandras / Baldwin the Ruler, purple-born, from Flanders).

The term Porphyrogennetos (‘born in the purple’) was used to refer to individuals born legitimately to a reigning emperor. The term was said to refer to the porphyry chamber in the imperial palace of Constantinople where empresses traditionally gave birth. Baldwin’s description of himself as Porphyrogennetos emphasises his birth-right as a Byzantine emperor as well as his birth location in the imperial palace in Constantinople.

The reverse of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin on horseback with the crown and sceptre, with a Greek inscription round the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, reverse

They say that all that glisters is not gold. Baldwin’s bulla is certainly golden, but the message of imperial power it conveys is illusory. By the time it was issued, the crown of Constantinople was firmly planted on another man's head. Still, this rare object is fascinating for its cross-cultural mix of features and its insight into one man’s construction of a public persona at odds with reality.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

14 August 2022

Gold galore in the Harley Golden Gospels

Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.

The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them. 

A detail of the gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, taken at an angle so it catches the light
A detail of gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, the Carolingian Empire, c.800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Golden writing

While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.

A text page, written in two columns of gold script, with a patterned frame
Text page with decorated gold border from the Harley Golden Gospels: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Canon Tables

Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen. 

Canon tables, lists of numbered passages from the Gospels inside an ornately decorated architectural frame
Canon tables with decorated gold columns and symbols of the four Evangelists: an angel, a lion, an ox and an eagle: Harley MS 2788, f. 6v

Title Page

The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.

Title page with a roundel containing an inscription announcing the four Gospels written in silver and gold ink, surrounded by plants and animals
Title page in gold and colours with a full border, Harley MS 2788, f. 12v

Evangelist portraits

Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.

Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 13v-14r

Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering. 

Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 71v-72r

The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 108v-109r

The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).

Frontispiece to John’s Gospel
Frontispiece to John’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 161v-162r

With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

09 August 2022

Breaking the news of the fall of Richard II

The oldest item in the British Library’s current Breaking the News exhibition (open until 21 August 2022) is an account of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. This small pamphlet is the earliest surviving example of printed news in Britain, but of course written records of contemporary events and experiences survive from ancient times, and from many parts of the world.

Page with printed image of an army with spears behind a hill, and a soldier handing a message to a king in front of a pavilion
An illustrated account of the Battle of Flodden, ‘Hereafter ensue the trewe encountre of batayle lately don betwene Engla[n]de and Scotlande etc’., Richard Fa[w]ques [1513].

A key focus of the current exhibition is the biases revealed in the way news is reported. Though they may not have been as immediate, or intended for circulation in the same way that news is today, medieval historical chronicles are evidence of the way events were seen and recorded by eyewitnesses at the time or shortly afterwards. The material that writers of chronicles chose to include or omit can tell us as much about their viewpoints and opinions as the contents themselves. An example of this is the story of capture of King Richard II of England (r. 1377 – 1399) in 1399, his mysterious death soon afterwards, and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV of England (r. 1399 – 1413).

In the later Middle Ages, those in power in England and on the Continent were keen to own books about the history of their dynasties, and some of these include reports of near-contemporary events. The fall of Richard II is recorded and illustrated in a number of histories and chronicles produced shortly after the event. One of these is a work by Jean Creton in rhyming French, the La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard II), devoted purely to the subject.

A group of noblemen in a castle with turrets, with one kneeling holding a sceptre before a figure in a red robe; knights guard the gate; text beneath
Richard II meets Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 50r

Jean Creton, a historian and poet who was sent in April 1399 by King Charles VI of France to accompany Richard II on a military expedition to Ireland, gave an eyewitness account of the capture of the king at Flint Castle in August 1399 and was commissioned by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to write this record. In his account, Jean condemns Henry’s treasonous acts, and those of his supporters, and calls for a response from the French, Flemish, Germans and Bretons.

Seven copies survive, of which only this one (Harley MS 1319), formerly owned by the Duc de Berry, brother of the French king, is illustrated. The dramatic miniatures provide an eyewitness perspective and guide the audience’s interpretation. For example, bright costumes are used to identify the key characters and their ranks.

A figure in a red robe is led by a bearded figure in a tall hat and spurs towards a group of figures with swords in front of a city gate; knights with pikes stand behind
Richard II is delivered to the citizens of London, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 53v

 

Seated robed men and women on either side of a red throne are presented to a man in a blue and gold garment
Henry IV is recognized as king by parliament, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 57r

A comprehensive account of events surrounding the deposition of Richard II was also recorded by Jean Froissart (c.1337- c.1405), a courtier and historian who worked in England and the Low Countries. His Chroniques deal mainly with events in England, France and Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. Froissart, perhaps wary of alienating the new king, does not take sides by attributing the murder to Henry IV.

A king in ermine receives a sceptre from a man in a grey garment before a throne in a palace; courtiers watch and two seated men read from scrolls
Richard resigning the crown; the funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 401v

Froissart’s Chroniques end in 1400 and the last episode illustrated in this copy is Richard II’s funeral, though the text itself ends with a dispute in 1400 between the Pope, the king of France and the citizens of Liege, in which Froissart tells how the latter threatened to throw any further messengers sent by the Pope into the River Meuse! At this point, aged around 63, he ended his chronicle but it remained a popular historical work, with copies like this one being made in the late 15th century and beyond.

This copy of Froissart’s Chroniques (Royal MS 18 E ii) was made for King Edward IV (r. 1461 – 1470), who had also gained the throne of England after deposing the previous king, who died mysteriously thereafter. In this case the deposed king was Henry VI, grandson of Henry IV who had deposed Richard II. Perhaps Edward pondered on this striking parallel as he read his finely illuminated chronicle manuscript.

A funeral cortage in a city, with a carriage containing a body pulled by two horses and mourners in black robes riding beside it; citizens watch from behind
The funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480), Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 416v

You can find out about news in modern and contemporary times in the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition, which runs to Sunday 21 August. For more on French chronicles in British Library manuscripts, see our virtual exhibition on Writing and Picturing History, Historical Manuscripts from the Royal collection.

Chantry Westwell

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30 July 2022

A tour of the Tower

Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?

Miniature of Charles, duke of Orléans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, with the city and London Bridge in the background

The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.

Drawing of medieval London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, enclosed by the city wall

London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.

Annotated image of the Tower of London and London Bridge in the background, from an illuminated manuscript made c. 1483

The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.

To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.

The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.

The White Tower of the Tower of London today

The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia

For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.

 

Rory MacLellan

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