21 October 2021
The latest leg of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme sees the loan of the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth, a medieval Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ, to a new exhibition in Redruth. These manuscripts are on display from 23 October 2021 until 22 January 2022 at Kresen Kernow (‘Cornwall Centre’), in an exhibition entitled ‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’.
The Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381) is the earliest surviving manuscript known to have been in use in Cornwall. It was produced in Brittany towards the end of the 9th century, but by the 940s it had been taken to the Cornish priory of St Petroc. The priory was initially in Padstow, but subsequently relocated to Bodmin following Viking attacks.
The opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r
From the mid-10th to the 11th centuries, numerous scribes copied documents onto blank pages and into the margins around the text of the Gospels. These documents, known as manumissions, record the freeing of many enslaved individuals whose existence in Cornwall is not noted in any other sources. The text of some of the documents was erased in the past by scraping the ink off the parchment, but in recent years multispectral imaging has made these texts legible again.
The Bodmin Gospels is open at ff. 8v–9r in the exhibition in Redruth, showing a page with four added manumission documents on the left, opposite the first canon table, listing parallel passages in the four Gospels.
Copies of four manumission documents in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 8v
The first canon table in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 9r
On display alongside the Bodmin Gospels is Pascon Agan Arluth, a Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ (Harley MS 1782). This manuscript was written in the 15th century, and appears to be a copy of a text originally composed in the previous century, making it the earliest surviving complete Cornish text. It also includes 10 coloured drawings in the lower margins, and is the earliest known illustrated manuscript written in Cornish.
Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ before King Herod: Harley MS 1782, f. 9r
The narrative of the poem, written in 259 8-line stanzas, focuses on the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, drawing on the accounts found in the Gospels, with other additional material.
Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ carrying the Cross: Harley MS 1782, f. 14v
The project to develop Kresen Kernow, where the manuscripts are on display, was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Cornwall Council, to create a new home for Cornwall’s archives and gallery spaces, within the walls of the former Redruth Brewery. It opened in September 2019 and houses over 1.5 million manuscripts, maps and documents from Cornwall Record Office, as well as photographs, books and newspapers from the Cornish Studies Library, and the archaeological records and photographs from the Historic Environment Record.
The Kresen Kernow building in Redruth © Phil Boorman
The new exhibition in Redruth includes medieval items from Kresen Kernow’s own collection. It follows on from the display this summer of four early Cornish language play-scripts on loan from the Bodleian Library and the National Library of Wales: the Cornish Ordinalia; the Creation of the World; the Life of St Meriadoc (Bewnans Meriasek); and the Life of St Kea (Bewnans Ke).
‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’ opens to the public on Saturday 23 October 2021 and runs until Saturday 22 January 2022. More information on opening times and how to book free tickets is available on the Kresen Kernow website.
The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year, as part of this programme, we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as George Eliot’s manuscript of Middlemarch to Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.
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19 October 2021
Long celebrated for its superb illuminations, the Saluces Hours (Add MS 27697) has been described by the art historian John Plummer as ‘one of the finest and most inventive manuscripts illuminated during the 15th century’. Yet it was only in 1989 that the art historian François Avril identified most of its miniatures as the work of Antoine de Lonhy, a prolific, multifaceted and well-travelled artist of the 15th century.
Antoine de Lonhy is the subject of a new exhibition, Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy (The European Renaissance of Antoine De Lonhy), which opened at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin on 7 October 2021, and will run until 9 January 2022. The Saluces Hours is a focal point of the exhibition, appearing in the first room together with a painting of Lonhy in the collection of the Palazzo Madama. Other works by Lonhy and his contemporaries include manuscripts, panel paintings, stained glass, sculptures and textiles. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view other miniatures from the manuscript shown digitally beside it.
The Saluces Hours is a manuscript with a complicated genesis. It was produced in Savoy, which in the 15th century was in independent duchy, and today comprises an area of southeast France and northwest Italy. The manuscript was originally begun around the 1440s, several decades before Lonhy’s involvement in the project. In this first stage, the text was probably completed and the process of illuminating the book begun. Some of the pictures and borders from this phase are attributed to Peronet Lamy (d. before 1453), an artist who worked for the court of Savoy from around 1432 to 1443, whose work is particularly apparent in the miniature of St John the Evangelist (f. 13r).
Another contemporary artist, known as the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy (after Paris, BnF, MS Lat. 9473) also contributed eight miniatures, as well as the historiated initials which accompany them. He might have done this concurrently with the original campaign of work, or perhaps he took over when Peronet Lamy stopped working on the book.
But for some reason, the project stalled and for over a decade the beautiful book was left unfinished. Then in around 1460-1470, Antoine de Lonhy took it up and completed it. As well as adding lots of new pictures, he also retouched the earlier artworks to increase the impression of stylistic coherence, and in some cases he may have painted on underdrawings made by the previous artists.
Although the book was originally intended for a male owner, as suggested by the inclusion of prayers which are grammatically phrased for the use of a man, Lonhy seems to have completed the new work for a woman. He painted her in an owner portrait, kneeling before the Virgin and Child and followed by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua. She is gorgeously dressed in a fur-trimmed dress, a weighty gold collar, and a towering conical hat (know as a hennin).
Yet the identity of this glamorous owner has proved puzzling. The borders of the manuscript regularly feature the coat of arms of the Saluces family of Piedmont (argent a chief azure), as well as in two places the coat of arms of the d'Urfé family (vair a chief gules). Based on this heraldic evidence, it used to be thought that the owner was Aimée (or Amadée) de Saluces (b. 1420, d. 1473), daughter of Mainfroy de Saluces of Piedmont. Aimée married Guillaume-Armand de Polignac around 1441, and their daughter Catherine married Pierre d'Urfé in 1489.
However, scholars no longer agree with this identification because the manuscript does not contain the Polignac arms, despite dating stylistically from the period after Aimée’s marriage. Further, the coats of arms appear to be later additions to the manuscript, and probably do not refer to the woman who Lonhy worked for at all. It is more likely that both the original and later patrons of the Book of Hours, with its close similarities to the Hours of Louis of Savoy, were members of Savoy's Ducal family. It is now thought that the woman is possibly Yolande of France (b. 1434, d. 1478), wife of Duke Amadeus IX of Savoy.
We know more about the artist, Antoine de Lonhy, thanks to the work of art historians who have meticulously identified his works and reconstructed his career, now further elucidated in the exhibition and exhibition catalogue. Apparently French by birth, he seems to have started his career in the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1440s. By the 1450s he was documented working in Toulouse, and in 1460-62 he was working in Barcelona. He seems to have settled in Piedmont around 1462, and he worked on commissions in Savoy and Piedmont in around 1470-90. Dozens of his attributed artworks survive in a surprisingly wide variety of media, including panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.
Despite his wide-ranging travels, Antoine de Lonhy’s style is closely linked to the northern European Gothic art in which he was trained. The ornamental architecture in his pictures is always Gothic rather than Classical, although Classical architecture was flourishing in Italy at the time. His pictures show a depth of space and an interest in sweeping landscapes that suggests he was well versed in the work of great Flemish artists of the first half of the 15th century such as Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van der Weyden. His figures are softly modelled with sensitive faces, draperies that fall into elaborate deep folds, and sometimes strikingly lifelike anatomy, as illustrated in the picture of the naked Adam and Eve in the Saluces Hours.
To discover more about Antoine de Lonhy and see a great range of his works, visit the exhibition Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, from 7 October, 2021 to 9 January, 2022.
You can read more about the subject in exhibition catalogue, Il Rinascimento europeo di Antoine De Lonhy, ed. by Simone Baiocco e Vittorio Natale (Genova: SAGEP, 2021), and you can find further bibliography in our catalogue record. You can also view the Saluces Hours online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.
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08 October 2021
Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the first major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, together, is now open at the British Library. After the delays, challenges and uncertainties of the last 18 months, the curatorial team is delighted to see the exhibition finally come to fruition and to welcome the public to it! To mark this event, Alan, Anna, Karen and Andrea have each selected a personal highlight from the show.
Alan writes, 'One of the most unprepossessing objects on display in the exhibition is a small letter. You might walk past it, having given it barely a glance. However, it is among four letters recently discovered in the British Library, all written by Elizabeth before she became queen. Such letters are comparatively rare. And this one, written from Enfield on 31 December 1547, to ‘M[aste]r Cycell attendinge vpon the Lorde Protector’, is more important than it at first might appear. In her letter Elizabeth petitioned one of the rising stars in government, William Cecil, to ‘commend’ her servant Hugh Goodacre to Edward Seymour, who was the lord protector during the minority reign of Edward VI. Cecil would become Elizabeth’s most trusted minister as queen. This letter is their first known contact, written when she was 14. Significantly, it shows how they were already bound together by their shared Protestant faith. It is also one of the earliest examples of Elizabeth’s famous italic signature.'
Letter addressed by Princess Elizabeth to William Cecil, 31 December 1547: Add MS 70518, f. 11r
Anna has selected as her favourite item the 1558 ‘false arms’ of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, the French dauphin François. 'Not only is it visually stunning, with bold colours that will catch the eye of any passing visitor, but it also illustrates the issue of the English succession that underpinned the personal and political rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth for almost three decades. As a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Mary had a strong claim to the English and Irish thrones. Following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, François and Mary began quartering the arms of England with their own and styling themselves ‘King and Queen Dauphins of Scotland, England and Ireland’. This act of provocation originated the distrust between Elizabeth and Mary that would culminate in Mary’s execution in 1587 for plotting Elizabeth’s death in order to seize the throne.'
The arms of Mary, Queen of Scots and the French dauphin, and of Scotland, France and England, sent from France, July 1559: Cotton MS Caligula B X/1, ff. 17v–18r
Karen has chosen the papal bull, known as Regnans in Excelsis, which was issued by Pope Pius V and printed in Latin in February 1570. 'Written in support of the Northern Rebellion, it proved too late to affect its outcome. The decree, calling Elizabeth ‘the pretended Queen of England’, excommunicated her from the Catholic Church and threatened her Catholic subjects with the same fate should they disobey the pope. This created a problem for English Catholics: should they be loyal to the queen or to the pope? The papal bull is one of a number of books and broadsides displayed in the exhibition to show the importance of printing at the time and its ability to spread information far and wide. It is not clear how far the bull circulated in England, but it is possible that Mary, who had been in captivity in England for about two years by this point, saw a copy of it.'
S.D.N. Pii Papæ V. Sententia declaratoria contra Elisabeth prætensam Angliæ Reginam, Rome?, 1570: C.18.e.2.(114*).
For her curators' pick, Andrea has chosen a letter written by Mary to Elizabeth in May 1568 following her deposition as Queen of Scots, her escape from captivity and subsequent flight across the English border. 'Writing in her native French tongue, Mary describes the treasonable actions of her enemies, who ‘have robbed me of everything I had in the world’ and expresses her confidence in Elizabeth ‘not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’. Describing herself as Elizabeth’s ‘very faithful and affectionate good sister, cousin and escaped prisoner, Mary begs for an audience; ‘I entreat you to send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can’, for ‘I am’, she bemoans, ‘in a pitiable condition, not only for a queen, but for a gentlewoman, for I have nothing in the world but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling sixty miles across the country the first day, and not having since ever ventured to proceed except by night, as I hope to declare before you if it pleases you to have pity, as I trust you will, upon my extreme misfortune.’'
Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I, 17 May 1568, Workington, Cumberland: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v
The exhibition explores how Mary’s arrival on English soil plunged Elizabeth and her government into a political predicament that would not end until Mary’s execution in 1587. On display is a magnificent array of letters and papers, books, maps, paintings, sculptures, textiles and jewellery, creating a tangible connection to unfolding events and inviting visitors to step back into a world of religious turmoil, espionage, treason and war.
The British Library, London
8 October 2021–20 February 2022
Alan Bryson, Andrea Clarke, Karen Limper-Herz and Anna Turnham
01 October 2021
What would a manuscript tell us if it could recount its travels and describe the places where it lived? The Locating a National Collection project, led by a team at the British Library, is exploring what place references can reveal about the ‘biography’ of historic objects. Does knowing that a precious manuscript is linked to a particular medieval abbey make it more interesting and relatable to us? Similarly, does knowing that a castle or a palace is connected to a rare medieval book help us to see it in a different light, and ultimately maybe even make us want to visit it?
To test this idea, and to discover how far following the footsteps of a manuscript can take us, the Locating a National Collection project has joined forces with the British Library’s medieval manuscript curators to dive into the Library's records and explore an exceptional story filled with great journeys, fortuitous discoveries and joyful reunifications. We thought that the best way to tell it was to use a map, or, better, an interactive one: a StoryMap. Scroll down to follow the tales of the travelling Bibles, click on the dots on the map to find more information about the places we mention along the way, and, if you are left wanting more, follow the links to other articles and resources.
We hope you enjoy your (virtual) journey.
Valeria Vitale and Gethin Rees
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27 September 2021
The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.
A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.
Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.
Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).
The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.
Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.
You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
24 September 2021
What's the first thing that you think of when you hear the words 'the Green Knight'? Is it the new Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, which has its UK release on 24 September? Or, if you are a medieval nerd, is it the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we look after at the British Library?
We haven't yet seen the film (have you booked your tickets yet?) but the 14th-century manuscript is available to view in full online, and it is also currently on display, for free, in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Its full-page illustrations have a charm all of their own, even if they were once dismissed as 'coarsely executed'. Take, for instance, the scene shown below, which prefaces the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v). At the top of the page, Sir Gawain (dressed in red and holding an axe) is addressing King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at their distinctly un-round table. Below, the Green Knight mounted on his green horse holds his severed head aloft, in front of a clearly bemused Gawain.
There are three further illustrations accompanying the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all painted in the same palette and in which all the characters have identical features and hairstyles. These illustrations follow one another in sequence at the end of the poem (ff. 129r, 129v, 130r). First, we have Bertilak's lady entering Gawain's bedchamber in order to seduce him (f. 129r). She is wearing what seems to be a turban and a brightly spotted dressing gown. Gawain is swathed, quite fittingly, in a green blanket.
Then we have the scene of Sir Gawain (on horseback) and the Green Knight (wielding the axe) before the Green Chapel (f. 129v). It has to be said that this particular page is exceedingly green, with the odd hints of other colours to delineate Gawain and the Green Knight's blond hair.
Finally, a kneeling Gawain is shown being greeted by Arthur and Guinevere beneath a dark blue canopy (f. 130r). The perspective of the three figures at the rear is disproportionate to that of Gawain before them and the paint, it has to be said, has been applied rather thickly. But the king and queen's expressions say it all: Gawain has accomplished his challenge and has saved the honour of King Arthur's court.
There are some wonderful still images of The Green Knight movie available on the IMDb website. The costume design of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) and the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) clearly owes nothing to their medieval counterparts. But we love their distinctive headdresses — Dev Patel shown below looks a tad like a Sun King — and the sheer menace on the Green Knight's face. The image of the Green Knight riding into King Arthur's court (featuring, incidentally, a very round-looking table) makes our hairs stand on end. There may be little in common with the image in the unique medieval manuscript, but they both convey a similar mood. This is a moment of wonder, of real danger, and of enticing mystery. We hope the film lives up to expectations. Never has it been more appropriate to declare, "Off with his head!"
All film images courtesy of IMDb.com, and as used in other reviews of the movie
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23 September 2021
Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.
A love story
One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.
Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections.
Stories of famous women
In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.
Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.
A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.
A lovable rogue
Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.
Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.
Discover more medieval stories
Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.
But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here.
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14 September 2021
14 September 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (14 September 1321), author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian narrates the poet's spiritual journey from the frozen depths of hell to the cosmic heights of heaven, while exploring themes such as sin, virtue and transcendent love.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.
Who was Dante?
Dante Alighieri was born in around 1265 into a prominent family in Florence. 13th-century Florence was an up-and-coming metropolis, with a growing economy based largely on the textile trade and banking. Yet the politics of the city was torn apart by conflict between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante’s family sided with the Guelphs. This political setting played an important part in shaping both Dante’s life and poetry.
Dante encountered another of his great influences when, at the age of nine, he went to a party at the house of an eight-year-old Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari. By his own later account, Dante instantly fell in love with her. But Dante’s love for Beatrice could never be realised: both were placed in arranged marriages by their families, and Beatrice died when she was only twenty-five. Although they only met a few times, Beatrice held a tremendous power over Dante’s imagination. His love for her would remain a central theme in his poetry throughout his life.
As a young man, Dante started writing poetry. His first collection of poems, the Vita Nuova (New Life), completed around 1293, narrates the story of his love for Beatrice. He also became involved in Florentine politics, serving as a soldier, public office holder and ambassador in support of the Guelph cause. However, in 1302 he fell foul of the city’s political intrigues and was sentenced to exile from Florence. Banished from his home city, Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, an epic poem in Italian in which he wove together his ideas about philosophy, theology, politics and love into an incredible cosmic journey.
What is the Divine Comedy about?
The Divine Comedy recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God. The poem is divided into three books, one for each of these afterlife realms. It begins with Dante wandering lost and downhearted in a forest, a metaphor for his exile. There he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who reveals that he has been sent by Beatrice to help Dante by guiding him on a spiritual journey.
First Virgil takes Dante through the nine circles of hell, where they see all kinds of gruesome punishments inflicted on sinners. Many of the sinners are identified as real people. For example, in the second circle of hell, Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, people guilty of the sin of lust being battered around by a ferocious wind. There Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, a woman who had an adulterous affair with her lover Paulo before they were both murdered by her jealous husband in around 1285. Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he faints with pity.
Many of the souls that they encounter belong to people who Dante regarded as corrupt political figures. For example, in the ninth circle of hell, where treacherous souls are imprisoned in a lake of ice, Dante and Virgil witnesses Count Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri. Both were major political players in 13th-century Pisa. After Ruggieri seized power in 1289, he imprisoned Ugolino with his children and grandchildren in a tower where they starved to death. Dante regarded both men’s abuse of power as leading to this horrific event, for which they now suffer eternal torment.
At the centre of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, a three-headed speechless monster. In his three mouths he chews on the three greatest traitors of human history who, according to Dante, are Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayor of Christ.
After they leave hell, Dante and Virgil move on to purgatory, which is represented as a mountain which souls must climb. Here, the souls work to purge themselves of the sins they have committed in life so that they can enter heaven. The mountain of purgatory is divided into seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins.
At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, or Garden of Eden. Here Dante witnesses a procession of biblical figures and a chariot drawn by griffins, in which Beatrice rides. She and Dante have an emotional reunion and she chastises him for letting his life go off course.
From here, Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide and together they ascend into heaven. Following the classical and medieval astronomic model, Dante’s heaven is divided into concentric spheres with the earth at the centre. The first seven spheres are each governed by one of the seven classical ‘planets’, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In each of these spheres, Dante and Beatrice meet blessed souls and learn about different kinds of virtue.
After making their way through the spheres of the planets, Beatrice and Dante come to the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by the sphere of the moving stars or Primum Mobile, and then the highest heaven, the Empyrean. Here they leave the physical world behind and enter a heaven of pure radiant light, filled with intellect, love and happiness. The Empyrean contains a huge celestial rose, where all the blessed souls reside, and where Dante witnesses a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Finally, Dante is able to witness the eternal light of God, the ultimate goal of his journey. He feels himself powerfully moved by God’s love, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, and died only about a year later in 1321. His work quickly gained popularity and survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, some of which are richly illustrated like the ones pictured in this blogpost. The tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy continued into the modern period as you can discover on the British Library’s European Collections blog.
If this has whetted your appetite, you can read The Divine Comedy in both the original Italian and in English translation on the Digital Dante website. You can also find out more about our amazing holdings of Dante material at the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30). And you can come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery.
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