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577 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

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In November 2018, we launched The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 Project. This ground-breaking collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France digitised a total of 800 medieval manuscripts from our two collections. The British Library’s curated website, Medieval England and France, 700–1200 now includes its own downloadable list of all 400 British Library manuscripts that were featured in the project, in spreadsheet format and as a PDF. This list can be accessed from the website’s About page.

An author portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk, holding a quill pen and knife, with a background made of gold leaf
An author portrait of St Dunstan: Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

The bilingual site (available in both English and French) also offers our readers a wealth of resources on the early medieval period, including:

  • Six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts, and medieval manuscript collections today.
  • 30 articles on a variety of subjects, from medieval science and maths to early medical knowledge, bindings, and monastic libraries.
  • 148 collection items, providing short introductions to some of the most stunning manuscripts digitised during the project.
  • Ten people pages, focusing on a selection of the major figures and authors active in England and France during the Middle Ages, from Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, to Emma of Normandy and William of Malmesbury.
  • A video series that explores all the steps needed to make a manuscript, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, as well as two additional videos discussing scribal culture and the role of law in early medieval England, featuring Professors Julia Crick and Nick Vincent.
  • Two animations based on accounts of the crane and the whale from an early medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751).
  • A glossary that defines important terms relating to medieval culture and art.
  • An overview of the project itself and the collaboration between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A detail from a medieval collection of texts on computus and astronomy, featuring diagrams that demonstrate the technique of finger-counting
Diagrams used to demonstrate the technique of finger-counting: Egerton MS 3314, f. 73r

We hope you enjoy exploring the Medieval England and France 800-1200 site and all the manuscripts digitised in the project!


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18 August 2020

How did the Cotton library grow?

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How, when and from whom did Sir Robert Cotton acquire his manuscripts? These are questions which, in some cases, remain unanswered. But there is a substantial body of material which provides clues to the growth of the Cotton collection. Some of that evidence can now be viewed online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

A portait of Sir Robert Cotton attributed to Cornelius Janssen (1626)

One important resource for understanding the evolution of the Cotton library is supplied by the correspondence bound in Cotton MS Julius C III. This volume contains around 360 original letters addressed to Robert Cotton (1571–1631), dating from 1592 onwards. Many of these letters relate to the acquisition of manuscripts or to loans from the library; the correspondents read like a roll-call of the famous men of the day. Among them are the poet John Donne (d. 1631) — who thanked Cotton for lending him books during his imprisonment for his secret marriage — the playwright Ben Jonson (d. 1637), the historian William Camden (d. 1623), and the astrologer John Dee (d. 1609). Many of the letters were written in England, but we have also identified correspondence sent to Cotton in French, Italian, Hebrew and Greek, and from destinations in Europe (Amiens, Antwerp, Bremen, Cambrai, Delft, Douai, Dublin, Florence, Paris and Venice) and in northern Africa (Algiers and Tunis). If it was not already appreciated, here is indication that Cotton's manuscript-collecting and sphere of influence was international in its scope.

So what do the letters tell us? Much remains to be done in identifying the books to which they refer, but here is one well-known example. On 10 May 1630, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), lieutenant of Dover Castle, wrote to Robert Cotton as follows:

'I have sent up two of your books, which have much pleasured me: I have here the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade: by the first safe and sure messenger it is your’s. So are the Saxon charters, as fast as I can coppy them: but in the meane time I will close K. John in a boxe and send him.'

A letter written by Edward Dering to Robert Cotton, dated 10 May 1630

Dering's letter sending Magna Carta to Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

The charter of King John was none other than an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, which is now Cotton Ch XIII 31A (sadly, it was badly damaged by fire in 1731 and is now mostly illegible). We should note that Dering, one of the leading antiquarian scholars of the day, described himself as Cotton's ‘affectionate freind and servant’. Clearly, he considered the Cotton library as a suitable home for a document which now has such global appeal.

The first page of the catalogue of Cotton charters

The first catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts: Harley MS 6018, f. 3r

What other evidence can tell us when Sir Robert Cotton acquired his manuscripts? Important in this context is his first handwritten catalogue, Harley MS 6018, which has also been recently digitised. A significant amount of research into this catalogue was conducted by the late Colin Tite, and is published in his book The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library (London, 2003). The first portion of Harley MS 6018 (ff. 3r–146r) contains the catalogue of Cotton's manuscripts, dated 1621 but with subsequent additions; the heading and a number of later entries are in Robert Cotton's own hand. A further section of this volume (ff. 147r–151v, 152v–190r) contains notes on printed books and manuscripts that had been loaned to others by Sir Robert and his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), sometimes with confirmations of receipt, and dated between 1606 and 1653. Tite used this evidence to piece together who was consulting works in the Cotton library in the 17th century (his edition of the loan lists is found on pp. 31–73 of The Early Records).

A page from the Cotton catalogue recording Asser's Life of King Alfred

 

A page from the Cotton catalogue, with Asser's Life of Alfred the Great (Otho MS A XII) recorded under no. 29: Harley MS 6018, f. 21r

In time, we hope that Tite's work is built upon in order to establish further who was using the Cotton library, and which manuscripts were in circulation. Sir Robert Cotton had been one of the petitioners to Queen Elizabeth I in 1602, requesting permission to form an 'Academy for the study of Antiquity and History', which would establish a library containing 'ancient books and rare monuments of antiquity, which otherwise might perish' (Cotton MS Faustina E V, f. 89). The queen did not grant their request, but Cotton himself made much of his collection available to other scholars, to the extent that certain manuscripts were loaned and never returned, such as the Utrecht Psalter (Cotton MS Claudius C VII, now Utrecht, Universiteitsbiliothek, MS 32), or were not returned until after Robert's death in 1631, such as the Cotton Genesis (Cotton MS Otho B VI).

What is equally interesting is that this catalogue of the manuscripts was itself alienated from the Cotton library. It somehow made its way into the collection of Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and Edward Harley (1689–1741), the 2nd earl, and thence into the collections of the British Museum Library in 1753. This shows that the Harleys would have had good understanding of what the Cotton library once contained, and may have been able to instruct their own librarian, Humfrey Wanley (d. 1726), to track down any manuscripts that had gone missing.

The opening page of Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters (1703): Harley MS 7647, f. 2r 

The name of Wanley is also significant for the third original resource for the Cotton collection that has now been digitised. This one is much less known, but has equally great potential for learning more about the contents of that library. It contains two catalogues of the Cotton charters, one in Latin made by Humfrey Wanley in 1703 (ff. 2r–12v), and the other in English made by Richard Widmore (d. 1764) sometime after 1750 (ff. 13r–52r). Although now classified as part of the Harley collection, Harley MS 7647, the volume in question was formerly known as Add MS 4998, and it is not listed in the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts (published in 1808). Colin Tite makes mention of it in The Early Records (p. 102), observing that Wanley's listing in this manuscript is near-identical to that recorded in his 1703 Report on the contents of the Cotton library, on the occasion of its passing into the hands of the nation.

The final page from Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

 

The final page from the catalogue of Cotton charters, for the Faustina press: Harley MS 7647, f. 12r

Unlike today, the Cotton charters as noted by Wanley are classified by emperors rather than arranged in numerical series. Wanley's ordering is as follows:

  • Julius: 13 charters
  • Augustus: 18 boxes (capsae) of charters, plus coins and other royal charters
  • Tiberius: 42 charters
  • Caligula: 8 charters and 1 seal
  • Claudius: 32 charters
  • Nero: 21 charters
  • Galba: 33 charters
  • Otho: 9 papal bulls, 6 rolls, 1 letter and 'a small parcel of little loose papers' 
  • Vitellius: 53 charters, 2 seals and 3 rolls
  • Vespasian: a number of medallions, wax seals, metal antiquities and other items
  • Titus: 1 charter, 5 rolls, 4 brass seals, 1 wax seal 'with some other things of no value'
  • Cleopatra: 6 rolls etc
  • Faustina: 44 charters plus other maps and miscellaneous materials, including 'Dr Dees Conjuring Table', 'A Sword with Inscription HUGO COMES CESTRIÆ', 3 'small pikes or lances' and various pictures of Robert Cotton and others

It will take some time, inevitably, to identify everything in Wanley's catalogue of the charters and other antiquities, many of which remain at the British Museum. By digitising this manuscript, along with Robert Cotton's own catalogue of his manuscripts and the correspondence addressed to him, we nonetheless hope to have made it easier to understand how the great Cotton collection developed.

 

Julian Harrison

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14 August 2020

“Collect the fragments – they should not perish!”

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The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.

A detail from the Bristol Psalter, featuring a marginal illustration of the miracle of the manna.
Collecting fragments of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century: Add MS 40731, f. 128r (detail)

Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.

A burnt fragment from the Cotton Genesis, featuring an illustration of Abraham receiving three angels.
Abraham receiving three angels, fragment of an illuminated copy of the Greek text of the Book of Genesis, known as the Cotton Genesis, Egypt, 5th/6th century: Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.

In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.

A detail of a mounted papyrus fragment added to a leaf from the Breviary of Margaret of York.
Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the 15th century, Ghent, c. 1480: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r (detail)

Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.
"The Golden Canon Tables", a fragment of a luxury gospel-book in Greek, trimmed and bound in a 12th-century volume, Constantinople, 6th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 1r

The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.

Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.

A fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing evidence of folding and handwritten notes.
Fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing signs of folding and handwritten notes: Add MS 70516, f. 2v.

Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.

A fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, featuring a marginal illustration.
Fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius: Add MS 70516, f. 84r.

The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.

A detail from the Eadui Psalter, showing an illustration of St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel.
St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel in the The Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century-mid 12th century: Arundel MS 155, f. 9v (detail)

Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.

A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, featuring the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius.
The only other existing manuscript of the earliest version of St Pachomius’s Greek Life showing the same text (cf. line 5) as the British Library Fragment presented above (cf. line 5 from bottom of the fragment), Apiro, Italy 11th century: Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut. 11.09, f. 170v

Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.

Peter Toth

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For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.

11 August 2020

Jewels make the Virgin Queen

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Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.

A portrait of a woman, representing Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a yellow dress, and a golden crown and necklace with gemstones in different colours

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r

One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r

A view of the cover of the Royal Gold Cup showing St Agnes in a red dress, accompanied by her foster-sister Saint Emerentiana in a blue dress, being offered a casket of jewels by her suitor Procopius in blue and red clothes

St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup, London, British Museum (image by Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v

Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.

Two panels showing scenes from the life of Lucretia. On the left, Lucretia lies in bed while her arm is being held by an Etruscan prince who raises a sword at her. On the right, Lucretia commits suicide with a sword in front of her husband and father

The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r

Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries  to a ‘new Minerva’.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r

Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.

A woman (Phyllis) in a red robe using a whip with her left hand and pulling reins with her right hand to control the movements of a bearded man in a grey robe and with a green hat, on whose back she is sitting

Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r

Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.

From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

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Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 August 2020

The maps of Matthew Paris

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Matthew Paris (b. c. 1200, d. 1259) was a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in Hertfordshire who was renowned for his work as a chronicler, scribe, and artist. His entry in the St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII), produced a little over a century after his death, describes him as an ‘incomparabilis monographus et pictor peroptimus’ (a writer without equal and an excellent artist). Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

A portrait of Matthew Paris writing at a desk, from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book.
A portrait of Matthew Paris (Matheus Parisiensis), from The St Albans Benefactor’s Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 50v detail)

In addition to his other accomplishments, Paris is also widely regarded as one of the greatest cartographers of his time. All of the British Library’s examples of his maps have now been digitised and can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Maps of Britain

Paris’ maps of Britain are significant in the history of medieval cartography as they represent some of the first attempts to depict the actual physical appearance of the country. Earlier maps more commonly represented the relationship between major regions or cities in schematic diagrams that provided little indication of distance or topography. Four of Paris’ maps of Britain survive, three housed at the British Library, and the fourth in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, showing Scotland, Wales, and much of Northern England.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, 1250-1259, St Albans (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 5v)

The first map appears in a manuscript containing copies of the Chronica maiora and Historia Anglorum written in Paris’ own hand (Royal MS 14 C VII). Though it is simpler than other surviving examples, the map still includes a number of significant geographical features, such as the River Thames, the Isles of Man and Wight, Snowdon in North Wales (with a drawing of the mountain), and the Orkneys off the coast of Scotland. Paris also features a route running across the country from the south coast all the way up to Durham. The major cities of Dover, London, and York (here known by its Latin name Eboracum) are accompanied by small drawings of castles or forts, with crenellated battlements.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, partly damaged in the Cotton Fire 1731.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, formerly part of the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (Cotton MS Julius D VII/1)

The second of Paris’ maps was originally drawn on a single parchment leaf that was then folded, cut, and inserted into another volume, known as the Collectanea of John of Wallingford (d. 1258). The map was damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731 and is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Julius D VII/1).

John of Wallingford was the infirmerer of St Albans Abbey and a contemporary and friend of Paris. His Collectanea is a miscellany that includes a huge variety of material: medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and historical texts, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, as well as a number of drawings by Paris himself. John added his own additions and annotations to the map of Britain in black ink, and he used the reverse of the leaf for the text of his Chronicle, which features a number of tables and diagrams.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, with the surrounding seas in turquoise, landmarks and place names in blue and red, and rivers in dark blue and red.
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, from a collection of historical works, c. 1255-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1)

By far the most detailed of Matthew Paris’ surviving maps of Britain once belonged to a manuscript of Paris’ Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie (Brief Abridgement of the Chronicles of England), a summary of his Historia Anglorum that covers the period in English history from the end of the first millennium to around 1255. It is now bound separately (as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1).

The map effectively provides a visual complement to Paris’ Historia. Over 250 named places appear – all of which are mentioned in the text itself – including over 80 cathedrals and monasteries, 41 castles, and at least 30 ports, as well as most of Britain’s major mountain ranges and rivers. Paris included depictions of both Hadrian’s Wall, captioned 'murus dividens anglos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once separating the English and the Picts), and the Antonine Wall, or 'murus dividens scotos 7 pictos olim' (the wall once dividing the Scots and the Picts).

You can explore all the map’s details in this wonderful interactive annotated copy designed by Dr John Wyatt Greenlee (Cornell University).

The Road Map of Britain

A page from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, showing a drawing of map, marked with four Roman roads running across Britain during the 13th century.
A road-map of Britain in the 13th century, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 187v detail).

An altogether different type of map is found in Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions), a collection of original literary treatises and historical documents he assembled to support his research. It is orientated with Occidens (West) at the top and Oriens (East) at the bottom, and instead of marking topographical features, it outlines four major military roads established during the Roman occupation of Britain, which were still in use during Matthew Paris’ lifetime: Fosse Way (running from Exeter to Lincoln), Ermine Street (London to York), Ickneild Way (Bury St Edmunds to Salisbury) and Watling Street (Dover to Chester).

Itineraries

An opening from Matthew Paris’ Book of Additions, featuring an itinerary map of the route between London and Naples.
An itinerary map, showing the route between London and Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, ff. 183v-184r)

Paris also created a number of expanded road maps known as itineraries, which detail the routes undertaken by travellers going on pilgrimage to Italy and the Holy Land. There are two housed at the British Library, the first also appearing in Paris’ Book of Additions. Drawn across a single opening in the manuscript, this itinerary outlines a potential route that could be taken between London and Naples. It features the various cities, ports, abbeys and monasteries, and other major sites that a pilgrim might expect to encounter on their journey. These are all connected by a series of lines drawn in red, with accompanying inscriptions that indicate how long it would take between each stop on the way. A particularly notable inclusion is a drawing of the hospital found at the top of Mount Cenis, the main Alpine pass that pilgrims would take to reach northern Italy.

A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing a drawing of a hospital at the top of Mount Cenis in the Alps.
The hospital marked at the top of Mount Cenis in Paris’ itinerary map from London to Naples, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum, 1250-1259, St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 184r detail).

The second itinerary depicts the route between London and Palestine. It is organised according to the same principles as the Nero map, but it is also far more complex and ambitious in its design, running across multiple leaves, with numerous detailed representations of the different sites featured on the pilgrimage route. Parchment flaps have also been stitched to some of the pages, to allow for additional drawings and provide alternative routes and information for travellers. The final section of the map is dominated by a large outline of the city of Acre – one of the only remaining Crusader strongholds in the region by Matthew Paris’ time – and other important sites in the Holy Land, such as Jerusalem (labelled ‘CIVITAS IERUSALEM’), Mount Sinai, and Bethlehem, which appears with its star shining in the sky above.

An opening from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre, with added parchment tabs.
The final section of an itinerary map of the route between London and the Holy Land, showing an outline of the city of Acre, as well as the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem (Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4v-5r)
 
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land.
A detail from an itinerary map designed by Matthew Paris, showing an outline of the city of Acre in the Holy Land (Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 4v detail).
 

We hope you enjoy exploring all the Matthew Paris maps as much as we have on our Digitised Manuscripts site!

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further Reading

Connolly, Daniel K., The Maps of Matthew Paris: Medieval Journeys Through Space, Time and Liturgy (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009).

Gilson, J.P., Four Maps of Great Britain Designed by Matthew Paris about A.D. 1250, Reproduced from Three Manuscripts in the British Museum and One at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (London: British Museum, 1928).

Harvey, P. D. A., 'Matthew Paris's maps of Britain', Thirteenth Century England, 4 (1992), 109–21.

Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London: The British Library, 2012).

Lewis, Suzanne, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica majora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

28 July 2020

Picturing the Old Testament in the Rochester Bible

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So far in this series of posts on the great Romanesque Bibles held by the British Library, I have focused on those made on the Continent: the Worms Bible, Arnstein Bible, Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible. Today’s blog is about an English example, from the former cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, in the second quarter of the 12th century. Unlike the others, which are all in two huge volumes, only part of the Rochester Bible survives, now divided between the Royal collection in the British Library and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Both portions are fully digitised and available online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (Royal MS 1 C VII), and on the Walters Art Museum's site (MS W.18).

Together these two parts constitute one of only eleven known extant English Romanesque display Bibles. Although it is slightly smaller than the Continental manuscripts featured, measuring 395 x 265 mm, the Rochester Bible is still a larger format than most other manuscripts from the period. The Royal portion of the Bible includes only the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth and I–IV Kings (I–II Samuel and I–II Kings in modern Bibles), while the Walters portion contains the New Testament. Four of the seven books have historiated initials (letters containing identifiable scenes or figures) depicting events described in the first chapters of these books. These historiated initials occur only in the Royal portion of the Bible, at the beginning of four of its seven books: Joshua, and I, II and IV Kings.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial F with an illustration of the Old Testament figure Elkanah and his wives.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Peninnah.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r (detail)

In contrast to the incredibly complicated theological artwork of the Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible, the illustrations of these books initially appear to be more straightforward. For example, I Kings (I Samuel) begins with a discussion of Elkanah (Elcana in the Vulgate) and his two wives. Each is labelled in the initial with their names above. To his left, Peninnah (Phenenna) holds two children, and in contrast, the childless Hannah (Anna), to his right, holds one hand to her face, perhaps in a gesture of sorrow. This is a succinct summary of the first verses: ‘There was a man of Ramathaimsophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elcana, . . . And he had two wives, the name of one was Anna, and the name of the other Phenenna. Phenenna had children: but Anna had no children’. (I Kings 1: 1-3).

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial P with an illustration of Elijah's Ascension.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elijah's Ascension, with the Old Testament prophet depicted riding a chariot.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v (detail)

Similarly, the initial at the beginning of IV Kings illustrates the second chapter of the text, which describes how, after seeing ‘a fiery chariot’ with ‘fiery horses’, Elias (Elijah) ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (IV Kings 2:11). Yet as C.M. Kauffmann has noted, the choice of this subject for the illustration rather than an event from the first chapter of the book underlines the significance of the Ascension of Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ’s Ascension.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial E with an illustration of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v (detail)

The imagery for the book of Joshua may be viewed as another layered interpretation of the text. The initial shows two men conversing: one young and beardless, and the other with grey hair and beard. The older man is handing the younger man a book. In order to fit the figures into the initial ‘E’, the artist presented the scene sideways—a relatively rare solution—and used the bar of the ‘E’ as a column, creating a setting within a building. Unlike Elkanah and his wives, the figures are not labelled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this scene represents the transmission of the law from Moses to Joshua, as set out a few verses later:

Take courage therefore, and be very valiant: that thou mayst observe and do all the law, which Moses my servant hath commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayst understand all things which thou dost. Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayst observe and do all things that are written in it: then shalt thou direct thy way, and understand it. (Joshua 1:7-8).

So this too, could have Christian significance as a reference to the Old Law that will be fulfilled in the New. It also echoes the actions of the blessed man of Psalm 1, who meditates on the law day and night, and who was understood by some Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of Christ. Further, as Lucy Freeman Sandler remarked, this verse begins next to the decorated initial in the right-hand column of the page, and the word ‘law’ (legem) appears only three lines lower than the image of the book in the initial (private communication).

Together, therefore, these initials enhance not only the elegant presentation of the Word, but also its interpretation.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), no. 33.

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190 (London: Harvey Miller, 1975), no. 45.

C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller, 2003), pp. 87, 94, pl. 62, Appendix 2.

And our earlier blog post on the Rochester Bible.