05 May 2020
The Tudor period saw Britain transform into a major maritime power, boasting a formidable navy and sending ships on voyages of exploration around the world. With this transformation came a surge of interest in maps and map-making at the Tudor Court.
A few weeks ago, we announced that we had digitised the Burghley Atlas (Royal MS 18 D III), an important Early Modern collection of maps made for Elizabeth I’s principal minister Sir William Cecil. Today, we are highlighting another newly digitised item, widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 16th-century cartography: The Queen Mary Atlas (Add MS 5415 A).
The Queen Mary Atlas was made by a Portuguese map-maker called Diogo Homem (b. 1521, d. 1576). After being exiled from Portugal in 1544 following a murder accusation, Diogo stayed in England and then in Venice. He made the Queen Mary Atlas between 1555 and 1558, most likely while he was still living in England.
The Atlas takes its name from Queen Mary I (r. 1553–1558), who is thought to have commissioned it as a gift for her husband Philip II of Spain (r. 1556–1598). However, it was not completed until after Mary’s death and was instead given to her sister Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). One of the maps in the manuscript shows the arms of Spain, joined with England, resting over the British Isles. The arms of Spain have been visibly defaced. According to one tradition, the erasure of the Spanish arms may have been done by Elizabeth herself, whose navy famously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The Atlas consists of a total of nine maps. The first represents the extent of the whole world that was known in the mid-16th century. A Latin inscription within its decorative border reads: 'Form of the whole world and survey of the navigation of the lands of the Earth' (Universalis mundi figura atque navigationum orbis terrarium scitus). You can see that the Australian continent is completely missing and much of northwestern America is still uncertain.
Another inscription in the lower right-hand corner of the map features Diogo’s signature, indicating that he completed it in 1558, the year Elizabeth came to the throne.
The remaining eight maps focus on specific regions or continents. Diogo highlights the coastlines of each country in these charts, outlining them in different colours: red, blue, green, orange, and in some cases gold. He also prioritises the locations of ports and islands over mainland cities and other topographical features, meticulously inscribing their names on the chart in minute lettering.
What marks the Queen Mary Atlas as one of the finest examples of cartography from this period is the richness of its illustrative details and embellishments. The seas, for example, feature numerous ships of various designs and sizes, from Spanish galleons to Ottoman barges. Some are even engaged in naval battles with each other.
Likewise, animals make frequent appearances, particularly in the maps of Africa and the Middle East. Northern Africa is home to a pride of lions and a pair of grazing camels. The lands around the Persian Gulf (modern-day Iran) include a tusked elephant walking through a landscape. Ethiopia features a black rhinoceros, whose distinctive skin has been represented as plated armour.
Then there are the sea monsters: scaled serpents, whales, sharks, and gigantic leviathans emerge from the waters and oceans. Perhaps they warn the viewer of the perils that might await a ship’s crew on the other side of the world.
Diogo includes detailed illustrations of some of the most prominent towns and cities, particularly those concentrated around the Mediterranean. They are represented with turrets and ramparts, and the domes and spires of churches and cathedrals, as well as the minarets of mosques in Arabia. In addition, each city is topped with the banner or heraldic arms of their ruling families and monarchs. The city of Rome (top right) with its seven hills, is decorated with the arms of the Papacy: the keys of St Peter below the papal tiara.
In addition to the maps, there are three double-page openings at the beginning of the manuscript devoted to tables and prefatory material. A large cosmographical wheel combines solar and lunar calendars. Tables of solar declination, which were used by navigators to establish the latitude of a ship at sea, appear as well. Finally, there is a particularly fine zonal map of the world, surrounded by ruddy-faced representations of the different classical winds blowing upon the globe.
With its nautical focus, marine monsters and topographical wonders, the Queen Mary Atlas shows us a world in which geographical knowledge was rapidly advancing and in which two Tudor queens sought to put Britain on the map. You can now explore the manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
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23 March 2020
Map-making, according to the 16th-century cosmographer William Cunningham, is ‘a treasure worthy to be had in estimation’. In the early modern period, maps and atlases were central to the business of government, as cartographers and surveyors devised new ways of charting Britain’s land, as well as the rest of the globe. Twenty years after Cunningham emphasised the importance of mapping in his 1559 book The Cosmographical Glasse, the period’s cartographic innovations culminated in an ambitious English atlas, now held in the British Library.
By the 1560s, Queen Elizabeth I’s principal minister Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, was on the lookout for a cartographer to make a detailed map of the country. A survey was proposed by the antiquarian Laurence Nowell, who produced a pocket map of England and Ireland (now Add MS 62540) as a specimen. Burghley decided against Nowell’s proposals, and the plan appears to have been shelved. However, it wasn’t long before a full-scale mapping project came to fruition. Christopher Saxton, a map-maker from Yorkshire, produced a complete atlas of England, under the patronage of Thomas Seckford, a lawyer and administrator.
A coloured map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r
Sir William Cecil’s manuscript copy is now Royal MS 18 D III, and contains printed and coloured maps from drawings by Saxton, dated between 1576 and 1577. The atlas contains information on distances, as well as relevant information for each county covered, including lists of local Justices of Peace and noblemen. As well as maps of the English counties, Burghley’s atlas also covers Wales and Scotland, and even contains a coloured map of the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia.
A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia, by William Borough (bap. 1536, d. 1598), explorer and naval administrator: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 124r
The volume also shows signs of Burghley’s extensive use. His historical and topographical notes begin in ‘Anno Mundi 2390, when Brutus came to Britain’, and pepper the margins and spare pages. Burghley’s maps are assembled in a different order to Saxton’s printed copies, indicating that the statesman rearranged the prints with his other maps and notes into an atlas for his personal examination. His jottings on the central fold of the map suggest that Burghley carried the volume for regular perusal.
A coloured manuscript map of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 90r
In his 1592 list of the duties of a Secretary of State, the administrator and diplomat Robert Beale observed that, ‘A Secretary must likewise have […] a book of the Maps of England, with a particular note of the division of the shires into Hundreds, Lathes, Wapenta[k]es, and what Nobleman, Gentleman, and others be residing in […] them’. Burghley’s cartographic commonplace book would have been essential for the statesman’s responses to foreign and domestic troubles, for military direction, and for decisions on law, trade and defence. Some of Burghley’s notes also show a more light-hearted use of the volume. On the map of Essex, the minister has recorded his opinions of different areas: ‘Heyghfeld fayre and fatt, Barndon park better than that, Coppledon beares a Crown, Copthall best of all’.
A coloured map of Essex, 1576, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 36r
Although Saxton’s atlas was full of detailed information, and served as a valuable reference book for the royal minister, the fast-paced world of Elizabethan map-making meant that it was soon surpassed by a series of county topographies developed by John Norden. However, Royal MS 18 D III remained in use. As late as 1603, five years after the death of Burghley himself, new information was still being added to his manuscript, including a list of knights from the coronation of King James I. Fortunately, the atlas is now available for all cartographers and explorers to consult, and can be found on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.
Here is a selection of some of the other fabulous maps from the Burghley Atlas.
A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Devon and Dorset from Dartmouth to Weymouth: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 10r
A coloured manuscript map of the Humber river, and the seacoast from Hull to Scarborough, with particulars of the tide, and a list of ‘Havens and Crickes’ on the North side of the Humber, pertaining to the Custom house of Hull: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 63r
A coloured map of Northumberland, with marginal notes in Burghley’s hand, listing the names of the principal Lords and Lordships in the Middle March: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 72r
A coloured map of Wales: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 99r
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20 September 2019
It is unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising, that the earliest surviving topographical map of Scotland should be one designed for invasion. Some of the most accurate maps of pre-modern Europe were made in the context of trade or war, profit or conflict, two operations that required considerable precision. In this particular case, the conflict was the Anglo-Scottish Wars of the 15th century, with the map sitting at the very centre of the long-standing tensions between the two kingdoms. Its maker was a soldier-spy named John Hardyng (1378–1465), who was sent by King Henry V to Scotland on a reconnaissance mission. His primary goal was to collect tactical information about the country in order to plan an attack.
The first version of Hardyng’s chronicle is preserved only in this manuscript, which contains a full-colour map of Scotland; West is at the top: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.
The outcome of Hardyng’s mission was a chronicle in Middle English verse, completed in 1457. It extended from the mythical foundations of Britain to 1437, and included a detailed map of southern and northern Scotland. There had been other maps which included Scotland, but Hardyng’s were unique. What is remarkable about them is that they focus on Scotland. This might seem insignificant, but in the medieval period it was not at all common to zoom in on a given area. While most other maps show Scotland as the northern part of Britain, Hardyng’s map turned a macro lens on the territory of the Scottish kingdom.
A close-up of the first version of Hardyng's map reveals the amazing detail of his cartographic representation: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.
Having incorporated the results of his espionage in the chronicle, he presented its first version in turn to Kings Henry VI and Edward IV. Hardyng wanted these maps to provide visual support for the strategic planning outlined in the chronicle. As Sarah Peverley has argued, they are more symbolic than tactical, since they offer information about the general state of the country.
Hardyng’s chronicle survives in two versions, an earlier and a later one, each with its own map of Scotland. The two versions of the chronicle are noticeably different. The later version is shorter, more political, but also more popular and more influential than its predecessor. It was this version that was consulted by Shakespeare and John Milton.
The second version of Hardyng's Chronicle is preserved in 12 manuscripts and traces the history of Britain back to an imagined past: Harley MS 661, f. 1r.
The Scottish map of the second version of the chronicle is more diagrammatic and more intriguing. Like the earlier version, it represents Scottish topography in remarkable detail, with towns, castles, churches and natural features like rivers and marshes. However, it also inter-weaves the text and diagrams in order to explain the significance of many Scottish localities.
This map shows a high variety of southern Scottish castles, churches, walled cities and other fortifications.
This three-page map includes both southern and northern Scotland. While the southern part is packed with towns and fortifications, the northern parts are represented differently. The region between the mormaerdoms (medieval Scottish counties) of Strathern and Ros, the larger part of the Scottish Highlands, is represented using text and diagrams. The Highlands are referred to as the lands inhabited by the ‘wilde Scottes’. The map depicts the various mormaerdoms as protected by river courses and flanked by two seas, the Mare Orientale (North Sea) and the Mare Occidentale (the Atlantic). For example, ‘the shires of Marre (Mar) and of Carriocth (Carioch) aff this cuntrey stondeth between two waters'.
This map of the Highlands of Scotland has South at the top. It provides an overview of the locations of all the major Scottish shires: Harley MS 661, f. 187v.
But there is something rotten in the North of Scotland. At the far end of Britain, beyond the Orkney Islands, Hardyng located Satan’s infernal abode, the palace of doom. According to the English spy-soldier, the more one moved away from England, the more savage and devilish the inhabitants became, culminating in the source of all evil, at the ends of the Earth, under Scotland’s (and Satan’s) dominion.
This diagram of Northern Scotland explains that 'the wilde Scotrie have their propre mancion' in Pluto (or Satan's) palace: Harley MS 661, f. 188r.
Surrounded by the four infernal rivers (Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus and Acheron), Satan’s diagrammatic seat of power was a metaphor for Hardyng’s view that the 'wickedness' of the Scots was attributable to Satanic influence.
If you would like to read more about Hardyng’s Chronicle, we would highly recommend these by Sarah Peverley:
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29 July 2018
In Chaucer’s famous opening line to the Canterbury Tales, ‘Aprille with his shoures soote’ (April with its sweet showers) was the time when people longed to set off on their travels. Of course, holidays as we know them were not enjoyed by medieval folk. The word itself comes from ‘Holy Days’ in the Church calendar, when a break from daily routine usually involved praying and fasting, not sunbathing and drinking cocktails on the beach. But people have always enjoyed visiting new places, and so pilgrimages were a popular way of taking a break at the same time as showing piety and atoning for one’s sins — a great all-inclusive package!
One medieval pilgrim was St Roch, who tended plague victims. He is usually pictured in typical pilgrim’s garb, with the staff, scrip or bag and shell (the symbol of Santiago and all pilgrims) on his hat. When he caught the plague himself, he was healed by a hunting dog who licked his wounds and brought him bread.
Miniature of Roch, showing a plague-spot on his thigh, with an angel and a dog holding a loaf, from the Prayer-book of Joanna of Ghistelles, Ghent, c. 1516: Egerton MS 2125, f. 209v
Instead of backpacking in Thailand, booking a package holiday to the Costa Brava or braving the traffic jams to the English seaside, medieval pilgrims headed for Palestine, northern Spain or Kent. Some of the leading destinations for English pilgrims were Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
The holy places in Palestine were the ultimate destination for medieval Christian pilgrims, although the journey could be arduous. Margery Kempe, the famous English mystic, travelled from Norfolk to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413–15, as recounted in her autobiography. Even kings could be pilgrims, including Louis IX of France: when on crusade to the Holy Land in 1251, he went on a pilgrimage from Acre to Nazareth on the Feast of the Annunciation.
Travellers to distant places needed maps. This plan of Jerusalem is found in a book of maps and sea charts, produced in Venice. It shows the holy sites including David's Tower, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, Pilate's house, St Anne's house and the Temple of Solomon.
Plan of Jerusalem in Pietro Vesconte’s book of charts, maps and plans, Venice, c. 1331: Add MS 27376*
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
This city in northern Spain is believed to be the resting place of St James, one of the twelve apostles. According to legend, James went to Spain to spread the Gospel before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded. His friends placed his head and body in a boat, which miraculously carried them to the Galician coast. After suffering trials and persecutions at the hands of local pagans, they finally buried his remains on a hill (now the site of the famous cathedral of Santiago), where they lay forgotten for many centuries. The cult of St James was revived in the 7th and 8th centuries when Christianity in Spain was under threat from Muslim expansion. St James allegedly appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the Milky Way: the name Compostela is believed to derive from the Latin campus stellae (field of stars).
Charlemagne pointing the way to Spain, from the Chroniques de France, Paris, 1st half of the 14th century: Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 166r
The first known pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela was Gotescalc, bishop of Puy in France, who visited the shrine in 950. The Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, went on pilgrimage there in 1097. By the 12th century, half a million pilgrims were travelling from as far as Scandinavia, England and southern Italy, and hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges had been built to accommodate them. A pilgrims’ guide, the Liber Sancti Iacobi, was produced, listing the towns along the way, providing useful phrases in Basque to use when travelling through that region, and warning pilgrims against certain local foods and customs.
St James, in the Liber Sancti Jacobi, Santiago?, 1st half of the 14th century: Add MS 12213, f. 3v
The Camino de Santiago is now a very popular pilgrimage route, with many walking from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées, a journey of six weeks. Getting there and back is much easier than in the Middle Ages, when most people walked or rode on horseback. The ‘Camino Ingles’ (English Way) has starting points at the ports of La Coruña and Ferrol, where medieval pilgrims arrived by boat from Britain.
Pilgrimage to Canterbury
Pilgrims came from all corners of Europe to worship at Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights on the evening of 29 December 1170. In this compilation of Becket’s letters, accompanied by John of Salisbury's account of his life and death, is an image showing the martyrdom in four narrative scenes. The upper two depict Becket at table, being told of the knights' arrival. The lower sections show Becket’s martyrdom in the church and the later veneration of his shrine by four kneeling figures.
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r
Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled from Southwark in London to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The routes from London and Winchester remain popular with modern pilgrims, passing through the Sussex and Kent countryside.
Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes, London, c. 1457–1460: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r
Many people like to watch travel programmes on television, seeing places we may never visit. Some people were unable to go on pilgrimage, but they could make a spiritual journey using guides or maps. Numerous medieval versions of the allegorical pilgrimage were written for this purpose, where the pilgrim had to overcome various obstacles to reach the final goal of spiritual fulfilment. In this French text, the pilgrim is guided by the lady Grace-Dieu.
The pilgrim is given his bag by Grace-Dieu, from Guillaume Deguilleville, Les Trois Pèlerinages, France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120, f. 28r
Matthew Paris’s famous itinerary of the route to Jerusalem is considered to be a guide for a spiritual rather than a real journey from London to the Holy Land, as he does not provide distances or practical details. As far as we know, Matthew never made the journey himself, instead learning of the route from travellers who passed through St Albans Abbey in the 13th century. The first part of his plan shows the journey from London in the lower left-hand column to Dover and then, in the right-hand column, from Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast to Beauvais. Each place is one day’s journey from the preceding one.
Section of an illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, from London to Beauvais, St Albans, 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r
In the medieval world, animals also went on pilgrimage. Here is an example from the Smithfield Decretals.
A rabbit shooting at a dog who is dressed as a pilgrim, from the glossed Decretals of Gregory IX (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), Toulouse?, late 13th or early 14th century: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 57v
In this collection of animal tales in German, a fox, having grown old and setting off on a pilgrimage, refuses the companionship of the watch-dog, wild ass, bear, lion, peacock, wolf, pig and mule. Instead, he chooses to travel with the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, the young hound and the ant (let’s hope someone offers the ant a ride!).
A fox choosing its companions for a pilgrimage, from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Salzburg, c. 1430: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r
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16 June 2018
Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!
The answers are now given below (no peeking!).
1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?
2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?
3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?
4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?
5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)
6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?
7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?
8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.
9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?
10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?
Here are the answers:
The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)
King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)
Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')
Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford
Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)
King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)
Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)
Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)
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31 May 2018
The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team comes from all over the world, but we have one place in common: the city of London, where we work at St Pancras. Today is London History Day, and here are some of our favourite medieval depictions of that city, at once distant yet somehow still recognizable.
An early map of the world
London is one of the oldest capital cities, which has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, viking attacks, fires and more. Let's start our survey with the earliest surviving detailed map of the British Isles. This map was made in southern England in the mid-11th century, but it may have been based on earlier models, possibly including maps made under the Roman Empire. The British Isles is shown in the lower left corner, with Lundona being one of the places named.
An early map of the world, dating from the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v
The itinerary of Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of St Albans Abbey, is a linear map that allowed the reader to travel to Jerusalem in his or her mind. Matthew described London as the chief city of England and claimed that it was founded originally by Brutus as ‘New Troy’. Matthew also picked out several landmarks, all of which still exist in some form or another today. These included the River Thames, Lambeth, Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the bridge, and the Tower of London. At the bottom of the map, Matthew Paris listed several of the gates of London. (See Edward Mills’s fantastic reconstruction of Matthew’s view of London.)
Matthew Paris’s depiction of London: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r
The Tower of London
The earliest topographically accurate depiction of London is found in a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, made in Bruges around 1483. Charles had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and he was held in England for the next twenty-five years. At the centre of the image is the Tower of London, where Charles was imprisoned during some of this time in England and where he composed his poems.
A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r
Another early resident of the Tower was King Richard II. He was held in captivity there shortly after being deposed in 1399. Things didn't end well for Richard, as he subsequently died at Pontefract Castle (perhaps being starved to death).
Richard II in the Tower: Harley MS 4380, f. 181v
One thing is certain. There are now fewer elephants in residence at the Tower than there were in the time of Matthew Paris!
Matthew Paris’s drawing of the elephant that lived in the Tower of London: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v
St Paul's Cathedral
At the centre of the image in his Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew St Paul’s Church. His building is unfamiliar to modern eyes, since he depicted it with a steeple and not with the iconic dome designed by Christopher Wren (d. 1723), following the destruction of the medieval cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
St Paul's Cathedral in the time of Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r
Westminster Abbey today is probably not much different from the time of Matthew Paris. In the same manuscript as the Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew depictions of kings holding objects with which they are particularly identified. He depicted King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) holding Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt over the structure commissioned by Edward the Confessor. The Abbey today is still largely the same design as that commissioned by Henry.
Matthew Paris’s depiction of Henry III holding Westminster Abbey: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r
Other London landmarks looked very different. The city's bridges are not lined today with houses, as London Bridge was in the medieval period. The population of London was also substantially smaller: around 60,000 people lived there by 1500. But ‘rush hour’ could still be perilous. John Lydgate recounted how, at 4pm on 20 November 1441, the young son of a butcher was pushed by an ox and fell off London Bridge. Thanks to the help of St Edmund, a passing boatman rescued the child and returned him, safe and sound, to his mother. The whole sequence is illustrated vividly in a 15th-century copy of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.
A boy falling off London Bridge and being returned by a boatman to his mother: Yates Thompson MS 47, ff. 94v, 97r
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27 January 2018
We have been hard at work here at the British Library and we are excited to share with you a brand new list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks. You can currently view on Digitised Manuscripts no less than 1,943 manuscripts and documents made in Europe before 1600, with more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF Download Digitised MSS January 2018. This is also available in the form of an Excel spreadsheet Download Digitised MSS January 2018 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).
Matthew Paris, Map of Britain, England (St Albans), 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v
The list reflects the wide range of materials made available online through our recent on on-going digitisation projects, including Greek manuscripts and papyri, pre-1200 manuscripts from England and France thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation, and illuminated manuscripts in French and other European vernacular languages.
Illustrations of the Journey of the Magi and the Magi before Herod, from a Psalter, England (London), 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8r
To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages. We also recommend taking a look at the British Library's Collection Items pages, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.
The British Library’s largest papyrus is over 2 metres long and features a deed of sale, Ravenna, 3 June 572: Add MS 5412 (detail of opening)
Depiction of Boccaccio talking to the Lady Fortune and a battle in a walled, moated city, from Boccaccio’s Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 35321, f. 180r
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24 January 2017
After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.
Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v
Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval authors' works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.
Left: Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v.
In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 9th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets. These diagrams could be rather elaborate, as in the 13th-century example below.
Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v
The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.
Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31, f. 66r
Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.
Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r
But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v
Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.
Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v
Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.
Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r
Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.
Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v
Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.
A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v
The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r
Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017).
Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v
This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens.
Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v
Alison Hudson, Peter Toth, Taylor McCall, Laure Miolo, and Chantry Westwell
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