Medieval manuscripts blog

1081 posts categorized "Medieval"

11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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05 January 2022

Our digitised collection keeps on growing

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2021. With the arrival of the New Year, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online. We also want to share some updates on our digitisation progress over the last year. 

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer
A historiated initial containing a portrait of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) holding an open book, from a copy of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r (detail)

There are now over 4,800 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of the items currently available, as of January 2022: 

PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2022

Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2022 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

Opening of Psalm 1 with decorated initials and borders
The opening of Psalm 1 in the Breviary of Renaud de Bar: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 7r

Over the last year, the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been as busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. During this period, we have published over 250 items, from medieval Books of Hours and Psalters to early modern rolls and atlases. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since January 2021. Here is a list of manuscripts that we digitised in the past twelve months:

PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jan_2021_jan2022

Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jan_2021_jan2022 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

Pope Joan giving birth
The legendary Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r (detail)
Gaston Fébus with his retinue and hunting dogs
The French author Gaston Fébus seated, surrounded by his retinue and hunting dogs, from the opening of his Livre de la chasse: Add MS 27699, f. 3r (detail)

We have continued to make progress on the major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Many of the manuscripts included in the project also feature in our current exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (Open until Sunday 20 February 2022). As of January 2022, over three quarters of these manuscripts have now been published online.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
A drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1, f. 650*r
Designs for swan marks
A late 16th-century collection of swan marks from Norfolk, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire: Add MS 44986, f. 7r

One of the items we have digitised in the past year is our most recent acquisition, the Lucas Psalter. This deluxe Psalter, which includes the book of Psalms and other devotional material, was made in Bruges for an English patron in the 1480s. It features beautiful decorated initials and borders by an artist known as the Master of Edward IV, and it possesses a contemporary 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses. The Lucas Psalter can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

God the Father and Christ, from Psalm 109 in the Lucas Psalter
A decorated initial depicting God the Father and Christ, from Psalm 109 in the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 140r (detail)
The Lucas Psalter's red velvet binding
The Lucas Psalter, with its 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses: Add MS 89428

Meanwhile in August, we announced the digitisation of an important medieval Irish manuscript (Harley MS 5280), regarded as an invaluable source for early Irish literature, which features over 30 different literary works in the vernacular. These texts range from stories of miraculous events and creatures, including giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat, and tales of voyages across the sea, to ancient battles and accounts of mythical figures from Ireland’s past. The volume is also visually striking, with numerous decorated initials, as well as a number of shorter poems and notes that have been wrapped into intricate shapes on the page, with others forming borders in margins. The manuscript can now be viewed in full on our Universal Viewer.

An Irish text with poems written in the margins
Poems written in the margins of a collection of Irish historical, mythological and religious texts: Harley MS 5280, f. 46v

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of Italy
A map of Italy, from Henricus Martellus Germanus’ Insularium illustratum (Illustrated Book of Islands): Add MS 15760, ff. 63v-64r

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections in 2022! 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 December 2021

Christmas gift ideas from medieval manuscripts

Christmas is the season of giving. This involves choosing appropriate gifts for our relatives and friends – not an easy task. Medieval manuscripts may give us inspiration, though in many cases the gifts would probably be way out of our price range. Here are some ideas for different situations.

For that special person

The scene of the Magi presenting their gifts to Christ on the feast of Epiphany is often included in cycles of images found in medieval liturgical books. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signify that the infant is a future king, priest and sacrifice. One could follow the example of the Magi and give something expensive and shiny made of gold such as a crown or a goblet, or beautifully fragrant like frankincense or myrrh. Or if you’re looking for a cheaper option, perhaps a scented candle?

The three Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary
The three Magi in the margin present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, who is seated with the Virgin Mary within the initial 'E'(cce), in a Roman Missal (Provence, 1275-1325), Add MS 17006, f. 18v
The Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee
The Magi present a crown, a goblet and two vessels to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee and holding up his fingers in blessing, in the Scandinavian Psalter (?Paris or Reims, c. 1250-1260), Add MS 17868, f. 17r

What to give the person who has everything

This was the problem faced by the Queen of Sheba. In the Old Testament (I Kings 10) we are told that she visited King Solomon to test his reputation for wisdom, prosperity and holiness. The magnificence of his court and the copious offerings he made to the Lord took her breath away. So she presented him with 120 gold coins, unprecedented quantities of spices, and various precious stones. This was perhaps not the best solution for someone who already had everything. But what to do?

The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon
The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon, in the Bohun Psalter and Hours (?London, after 1356, and probably before 1373), Egerton MS 3277, f. 85v

The Biblia Pauperum, a picture book that juxtaposes scenes from the Old and New Testaments, shows the Magi and the Queen of Sheba side by side presenting their gifts. But though gold and riches might be suitable for Solomon, are they really an appropriate gift for a baby? In this charming depiction of the Nativity, the Christ child appears to be trying to grasp the golden objects from the kneeling Magus, scattering them to the floor, while looking back at his mother to see her reaction.

The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right)
The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right), in a Biblia Pauperum (?The Hague, Netherlands, c. 1405), Kings MS 5, f. 3r

Corporate gifts

Receiving gifts from managers and business associates can be a mixed experience, and choosing them is even more difficult. Medieval kings were gift-givers par excellence, giving gifts to symbolise their wealth and power and to cement alliances with their subjects. They also donated large amounts to the Church in return for eternal salvation for themselves and their families. An early example is represented in a drawing of King Cnut and his wife Aelfgifu (or Emma) presenting a magnificent gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester, as a symbol of their patronage.

King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu place a large gold cross on an altar
King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu (also called Emma) place a large gold cross on an altar; below are monks looking upward within arches, in the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, 11th century), Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Alexander the Great was both a giver and receiver of gifts, according to medieval accounts of his life. Here he is shown receiving gifts from Darius along with a threatening message from the Persian king.

Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius
Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose (Paris, c. 1420), Royal 20 B XX, f. 24r

Sometimes monarchs expected gifts in return from their loyal subjects. Gold goblets seem to be a popular choice in these circumstances. 

Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects
Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects, in Boccaccio, De Cleres et nobles femmes (Rouen, c. 1440), Royal MS 16 G V, f. 127v

It seems that manuscripts are rather short on gift ideas, if gold goblets are not to our taste. But wait – there is another option that many of us will resort to once again this Christmas… books!

Gifts for everyone

There are so many different types of books out there – something for everyone. And in the Middle Ages books were popular gifts too for kings, queens and princes. A most magnificent example is the Talbot Shrewsbury Book presented to Margaret of Anjou on her betrothal to Henry VI of England by the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury.

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to Margaret of Anjou
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to the future queen of England, who is seated in a palace beside the king, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, c. 1445), Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, The Book of the Queen (Paris c. 1410), Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Notice the dogs in both these images – they were a symbol of fidelity in medieval imagery. For us they are maybe a reminder not to forget our pets this Christmas – they need gifts too! Perhaps a tasty bone would be just the thing.

A dog with a bone
A dog with a bone, from a book of hours (England, 14th-century), Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

All of us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library wish you a very happy festive season!

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 December 2021

Collating Cicero in Cologne

Our work on revising the online descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection continues apace. One manuscript that has recently had its online description updated is Harley MS 2682, an 11th-century volume known as the ‘Cologne Cicero’. It has been recognised for centuries as an important witness to a number of the works of the famous Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43 BCE).

Manuscript page showing the beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam

The beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam (western Germany, 2nd half of the 11th century): Harley MS 2682, f. 115r

The first person to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ — the process of comparing different manuscripts of a work in order to establish its correct text — was François Modius (1556–1597), a Flemish jurist and humanist classical scholar. With the help of the Cologne theologian, Melchior Hittorp (c. 1525–1584), Modius was given access to the manuscript before 1584 when he published some of his collations. At that point, it was in the library at Cologne Cathedral, and it seems that it was originally made in the scriptorium there. The next scholar to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ was Janus Gulielmus, or Johann Wilhelm (1555–1584), who called it the optimus (‘best', 'most useful’) of the three manuscripts he was using. In 1688, the manuscript was taken from Cologne Cathedral by the German classical scholar, Johann Georg Graevius (1632–1703). Graevius’s library, including our manuscript, was bought in 1703 by Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine (1658–1716). The Wilhelm library was bought in turn by the merchant and diplomat Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni (d. 1753), sometime before 1724, from whom the 'Cologne Cicero' was purchased on 20 October 1725 by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), librarian to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741).

As well as being collated intensively in the 1500s and 1600s, Harley MS 2682 is testament to the interest in studying Cicero’s works in the 11th century. It seems to represent the oldest attempt at bringing together all of Cicero’s works in one volume. What is more, it is an example of medieval textual criticism since the three so-called ‘Caesarian speeches’ were copied twice, in two different versions. The first version seems to have been imperfect, only containing the first half of the third speech, Pro rege Deiotaro (On behalf of King Deiotarus before Caesar). It seems that the compiler(s) of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ realised this shortcoming of the first exemplar for the ‘Caesarian speeches’, and found another manuscript — with the full text — from which to copy the three speeches once again.

Medieval manuscript page with a nota mark in dark ink extending down the entire outer margin

The beginning of Cicero's De petitione consulatus, with a nota mark extending down the entire outer margin: Harley MS 2682, f. 53r

The pages of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ also show marks of continued use during its medieval history. There are numerous marginal annotations and so-called nota marks, drawing attention to a particular sentence or paragraph. Some common forms of nota marks are little pointing hands, manicules, or monograms of the word nota itself. On one page marking the beginning of De petitione consulatus (On running for the consulship) (f. 53r), the nota monogram runs down the entire outer margin. Someone must have found this page especially important!

To read more about the attention that medieval scholars and readers paid to the texts of the Latin classics, see our article on ‘The Latin Middle Ages’.


Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 November 2021

Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor

Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).

Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower
Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower, Langtoft’s Chronicle of English History (N. England, 1307–27): Royal MS 20 A II, f. 3v

As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.

Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge
Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge, Estoire de Merlin (St Omer or Tournai, 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 76r

They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.

Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess
Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 77v

The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.

Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.

Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons
Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 25r

Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.

Merlin helps build Stonehenge
Merlin helps build Stonehenge, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.

Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest
Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest, Livre de Merlin (Arras, 1310): Add MS 38117, f. 76r

Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.

Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast
Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 160v

When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.

Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane
Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane, Livre de Merlin: Add MS 38117, f. 186r.

In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.

Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Dragons heroes myths magic cover


10 November 2021

The Floreffe Bible on exhibition

This year is the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, in 1121. The anniversary is being celebrated in Namur at TreM.a: the Museum of Ancient Arts, with the exhibition Grandeur et déchéance. L’héritage patrimonial de l’abbaye de Floreffe which opened in late October.

The exhibition features the second volume of the enormous (480 x 335 mm) two-volume Bible made in Floreffe in around 1170, now in the British Library’s collection. The manuscript is open at the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, which features a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’ [quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem] (Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration).

The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke with a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’
The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r

Like the other miniatures in the Bible, this one provides a sophisticated visual commentary on the accompanying text. In part, the image relates to the Evangelist’s symbol of St Luke. From an early date, Church Fathers associated symbols with the Four Evangelists, derived from Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures with four faces (Ezekiel 1:5-11), and from St John’s vision of the four living creatures before the throne (Revelation 4:6-8). St Luke’s symbol is an ox or calf, while the others are a man for St Matthew, a lion for St Mark and an eagle for St John.

In the lower register of the miniature, a priest is sacrificing a calf on an altar. On either side are figures holding scrolls bearings texts from the Old or New Testament. To the left, King David, the supposed author of the Psalms, holds a scroll with Psalm 68:32: ‘[et] placebit Deo super vitulum novellum, cornua producentem et ungulas’ ([And] it shall please God better than a young calf, that bringeth forth horns and hoofs). To the right, St Luke, holding his symbol, which resembles the calf being sacrificed, holds a scroll with verses from Luke 15:22-23: ‘Dixit autem pater ad servos suos: . . . et adducite vitulum saginatum, et occidite’ (And the father said to his servants: . . .And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it).

Detail of the miniature, showing the priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side
The priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

The upper scene of the miniature is the Crucifixion of Christ, with the soldier Longinus on the left, piercing Christ's side with his spear, and the soldier Stephaton on the right, holding a sponge filled with vinegar. Just above the transverse beam of the cross, the Old and New Testament quotations and supposed authors are reversed in order. On the left, St Paul holds a scroll with a verse from Hebrews 9:12: ‘[neque per sanguinem hircorum aut vitulorum, sed] per proprium sanguinem introivit semel in Sancta’ ([Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but] by his own blood, entered once into the holies). On the right, a crowned King David points directly at Christ; his scroll contains a verse from Psalm 109:4: ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech).

Detail of the miniature, showing the Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David
The Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

Rhymed verses inscribed on the arch above summarise the significance of the images:

Pro nevo fraudis vitulus datur hostia laudis
Quod Christus vitulus sit docet hic titulus

For the blemish of the fraud [i. e., of the devil] a calf is given as the sacrifice of praise [c.f. Hebrews 13:15]
That this calf is Christ is what this inscription shows.

(Translation by Peter Toth).

Each of the Gospels in the Floreffe Bible opens with a similar image with layered interpretations and visual commentaries. For example, you can read about the opening of the Gospel of St Mark, which explores the relationship between the lion and Christ’s Resurrection, in our previous blogpost.

Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, with a miniature showing the Resurrection of Christ and a lion
Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 179v

Another of the images in the manuscript, at the beginning of the Book of Job, connects the family of Job to the three theological virtues and the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. You can also read about this page in a previous blogpost.

The first volume of the Floreffe Bible is also on public display, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London, where it is open to St Jerome’s letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in which he urges Paulinus to make a diligent study of the Scriptures. Both volumes are also available online on our Digitised Manuscript website.

Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 October 2021

Afterlives and otherworlds: three ghost stories from medieval Ireland

Masks, murder and medieval Irish literature — these were the three passions of Michael Myers, primary antagonist of the Halloween movies. In John Carpenter's 1981 horror classic, Halloween 2, Myers took a short break from his Halloween massacre to break into a school and write ‘SAMHAIN’ in blood on a blackboard. His psychiatrist, Dr Sam Loomis, explained that this was a Celtic word meaning ‘Lord of the dead. The end of summer. The festival of Samhain, October 31st’. This is not entirely accurate: the Dictionary of the Irish Language instead defines samain as 1 November or All Saints’ Day.

Three characters from the film Halloween 2 investigate the word ‘Samhain’ written in blood on a blackboard

The police officers and Dr Loomis looking at the word ‘Samhain’ written in blood on a blackboard, from the film Halloween 2

Given this connection, we thought it would be fitting to celebrate Halloween with some spooky Irish stories from British Library manuscripts. Although there were no masked murderers prowling the suburbs in medieval Ireland, these tales of the supernatural should satisfy fans of horror and medieval literature alike.

An image of a crowned skeletal figure, Death, waving in the right-hand margin beside a page of text

An image of Death crowned, in the Carthusian Miscellany (England, 15th century): Add MS 37049, f. 31v

Our first Irish ghost story, Echtra Nerai ('The Adventures of Nera'), is set on the eve of Samhain, 31 October. King Ailill and Queen Medb (Maeve) were at Ráth Cruachan with their household, playing an appropriately ghastly game — whoever could tie a withy round the foot of either of the two men hanged outside would win a prize. True to all good horror stories, it was a dark night of great horror on which demons always appeared. This was enough to scare all the men, who ran back inside the house in fright.

A page from an Irish manuscript, with a blank space at the beginning left for a decorated initial

The opening lines of The Adventure of Nera, with space for the opening initial left unfilled (Ireland, 16th century): Egerton MS 1782, f. 71v

Nera braved the night, but the withy fell from his grasp three times. Fortunately, the corpse was surprisingly helpful despite his recent execution, and advised Nera to put a peg on the withy to keep it in place. The corpse then complimented Nera on his courage and asked for a drink, as he had been very thirsty when he was hanged. Nera agreed and gave the dead man a piggy-back ride to a nearby house surrounded by a lake of fire. The corpse complained that this house was no good, and neither was the next house surrounded by a lake of water. The third house, much like the story of Goldilocks, was just right. Unfortunately for its occupants, the corpse spat out the lost drops of his drink on them, killing them all.

Unperturbed, Nera brought the corpse back to the gallows, but on his return he saw Ráth Cruachan burning and the decapitated heads of its residents on the ground. Nera followed the otherworldly army responsible for this carnage into a síd, or fairy hill, which led him to the Otherworld. There he was ordered by the king to live with a single woman and to bring him firewood every day. This woman revealed in turn that the destruction Nera had seen was only a vision, and that he must warn his people to be on guard the next Samhain.

A page of a manuscript containing Irish script

The Adventure of Nera, when Nera's wife warns him that the Otherworld host will attack next Samhain when the ‘fairy-mounds’ of Ireland are open: Egerton MS 1782, f. 73r

Nera learned that no time had passed in Ráth Cruachan, despite spending three days in the Otherworld. His warnings were heeded and on Samhain the following year he was sent back to rescue his new family from the síd. After discovering he had a son, he returned to the mortal realm telling of the wonders of the Otherworld and the coming attack next Samhain. The following year the men of Ailill and Medb raided the síd, destroying it and taking three treasures: the crown of Briúin, the mantle of Lóegaire in Armagh, and the shirt of Dunlaing in Kildare. Nera, in contrast, returned to the síd where he would remain with his wife until Doomsday.

Other medieval Irish ghosts tended to be friendly, albeit a bit of a nuisance. Often they were simply looking for somebody to pray for them to get into Heaven. This was the case in our second ghost story, recounted in Egerton MS 92, which describes how a recently-deceased nun had appeared to Maol Póil úa Cináetha. After staying up late to discuss astrology with a fellow monk, Maol Póil had tried to sleep, but he was interrupted by a nun who had died 6 days earlier, who appeared and chastised him for discussing astrology instead of praying for her. When Maol Póil asked which prayer she would like, she requested the Bíait, possibly Psalm 118 or Psalm 32, one of the Seven Penitential Psalms. Her final destination is not revealed, but the efficacy of prayer for helping ghosts is attested elsewhere.

The same manuscript tells of Coirpre Crom (Coirpre the Stooping), bishop of Clonmacnoise. One night after vespers, a dark, shadowy figure appeared to him, with a bright circle around its neck and wearing a shirt with one sleeve. The figure revealed itself to be the soul of Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, a 9th-century Irish king. He claimed that his darkened appearance was the result of his sins staining his soul. The circle round his neck came from a ring he had given to a priest who failed to pray for him, and the one-sleeved shirt was the one he had given to pupils of the church who came to him, while he was alive, looking for a cloak for a poor student. The ghost revealed that he was in Hell and was being carried through the air, tormented by demons who were frightened away by the sound of Coirpre’s prayers.

A manuscript illumination depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a human soul in a hellmouth

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a soul in a hellmouth (Germany, 14th century): Add MS 15243, f. 12r

Coirpre agreed to pray for Máel Sechnaill and enlisted the twelve priests of the church to pray for his priest, who was also in Hell. A year later, Máel Sechnaill’s soul reappeared, visibly less stained by sin. Máel Sechnaill told Coirpre again of the horrors of Hell and asked him to continue praying and fasting. The next year he returned, radiant in appearance, and announced that Coirpre’s prayers had saved him from Hell and both he and his priest would ascend to Heaven.

Hundreds of years before M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter, the Irish were telling stories of restless spirits, murderous corpses and otherworldly invaders. As Nera’s wife said, ‘the fairy-mounds of Ireland are always open on Samhain’.


Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

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28 October 2021

Into the inferno

700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.

A poster for the exhibition Inferno.
The exhibition poster for Inferno, curated by Jean Clair, at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.

The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.

A representation of the Last Judgement from the Winchester Psalter, showing an enormous hell-mouth swallowing demons and the souls of the damned, and an archangel locking the gates of Hell.
The Last Judgement, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.

The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing a crowd of sinners swallowed by the Mouth of Hell during the Last Judgement.
A crowd of sinners in the Mouth of Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail)

Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing an archangel locking the door to Hell, during the Last Judgement.
An archangel locks the doors to Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail).

You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.

Calum Cockburn
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